Model inclusion at Mather High

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Peter Zimmerman

photo by Christine Oliva

Peter Zimmerman

So far, only one Chicago public high school, Mather, has been cited for its “superior” efforts to comply with federal special education law.

Mather, a North Side school with an enrollment of 2,000, began redirecting students with disabilities into regular classrooms in 1997, a year before the Corey H. settlement compelled all high schools to do the same. Locally, Mather also pioneered pairing core subject teachers with their special education colleagues to co-teach mixed classrooms.

Federal court monitors who visited Mather in the spring of 2000 found that special education students were “remarkably engaged” in co-taught classes and that many had posted above average gains in reading. Faculty had meticulously identified extra supports for each special education student.

Reforms at Mather were working, they concluded, “because of a collective gut level instinct that it was the right thing to do.”

This year, 14 percent of Mather’s 2,000 students are in special education; only 15 percent of disabled students are in self-contained classes.

Overcrowding, school culture and leadership put Mather higher up the learning curve for special education reform than most general high schools.

Where other schools resisted opening up regular classes to disabled students, Mather included as many as possible—out of necessity. Segregating them would have required extra classrooms that the school couldn’t spare.

Since teachers didn’t have their own classrooms anyway, they more easily made the transition to co-teaching, says Principal John Butterfield.

Peter Zimmerman, the school’s special education coordinator, names other advantages: Mather is neither an elite school unaccustomed to dealing with special needs, nor an inner-city school overwhelmed by the number and severity of them.

A longstanding program for physically handicapped students also smoothed the way for later reforms, he believes. In the late 80s, the district asked Mather, an accessible one-story school, to accept physically challenged students from other neighborhoods.

Initially, some staff feared for the students’ safety in overcrowded hallways, but soon they noticed that the presence of these students calmed the hallway rush. Teachers, likewise, grew accustomed to handling special needs, such as allowing extra travel time between classes.

The diversity of Mather’s student population—some 30 languages are spoken there—also made teachers more flexible than they might have been otherwise, Zimmerman adds. “As multi-cultural as we are, it can be a very difficult place to work if you’re not a tolerant person.”

Despite Mather’s tolerant culture, school leaders anticipated resistance to co-teaching. “We spent a lot of time winning people over, … [or] at least neutralizing them,” Butterfield explains. “If you dump it on people all at once, you’ll turn [them] off.”

Staff eased into co-teaching with a district program called “Education Connection,” which provided $110,000 in grants. Some money paid for substitute teachers so that small groups of teachers could attend all-day retreats. A nearby bank lent its conference room, where teachers met to discuss the mechanics of sharing a class, and even to practice teaching lessons together.

A stroke of luck helped to snare the first Education Connection grant. One of the school’s assistant principals, Sandra Fontanez-Phelan, had been the district’s special education director—she stepped down for personal reasons—and she urged the school to pursue the $10,000 planning grant.

Under Fontanez-Phelan’s leadership, Mather was the only high school whose grant application was accepted for 1997-98 without revision. A team of teachers and administrators met throughout that school year to plan the expansion of inclusion and co-taught classes.

The following school year, when the School Board began awarding $100,000 implementation grants, Mather was first in line. The additional money paid for two years of staff training and materials. Much of that money went for math instruction since that subject incurred the highest failure rates. For example, it bought supplemental materials like geometric blocks and software for co-taught math classes. It also paid for workshops for the special education teachers who didn’t have a background in math.

In 1997-98, Mather opened 14 co-taught classes, which grew to 27 the following school year. From the start, Butterfield made his expectations clear. He told the faculty that inclusion was the law and co-teaching would be the school’s practice from now on, teachers say.

“An administrator saying that forcefully makes all the difference in the world,” Zimmerman insists. “If that message had come from me, frankly, they wouldn’t have taken it seriously.”

A soft sell

As facilitator, Zimmerman took a soft-sell approach. In staff development, he and other trainers avoided the word “inclusion.” “When you say ‘inclusion,’ … people get upset,” he notes. While Mather would be including more disabled students, they emphasized that those with severe disabilities might join other students only for gym or music.

Instead, they enumerated the benefits of co-teaching. Outside consultants provided training, but some of the most effective staff development came from teachers themselves, says Zimmerman. Panels of successful co-teaching teams shared their experiences with the staff—”to show them, ‘Hey, this can work. There are people out there doing this. It is not something to be afraid of,'” he explains.

With co-teaching, students benefit from having both a teacher with content expertise and one with a repertoire of strategies for reaching hard-to-teach students. Further, all struggling students get extra attention, not only those in special education.

While the subject area teacher would take the lead on content, the special education teacher was not to function as a teachers’ aide. Most had some background in a core subject, so they could teach some lessons to a small group or to the whole class, which would free their partner to circulate.

Co-teachers who volunteered to make presentations to their colleagues didn’t gloss over the rough spots, says Fontanez-Phelan, now principal of Kelvyn Park High. When she first arrived at Mather as a special education teacher, she and a fledgling English teacher teamed up to give co-teaching a try. Their message was, “There are personality issues. There are misunderstandings [such as]: ‘What did you mean by that? I was teaching a lesson [and] you jumped in too many times! You interrupted me!'”

The key to making it work, they explained, is to sit down and work through the details: Who does the grading? What should the standards be? How will you handle student discipline?

In its original plan, Mather crafted a process for handling the inevitable conflicts between co-teachers. For example, teachers wrestling with a problem could appeal to a department chair for help.

Conflicts ranged from one teacher refusing to grade the other’s papers, to complaints about the other teacher chewing gum in class, Zimmerman says.

To keep such conflicts to a minimum, co-teachers were carefully paired based on preferences they cited in a survey Zimmerman developed and uses to this day to organize each year’s class assignments.

The preparation and planning paid off. Some teachers who say they were wary of co-teaching soon grew to like it. “I noticed grades were going up, [student] motivation and enthusiasm was going up,” says science teacher Armando Villanueva. He attributes that to the extra one-on-one attention that a second teacher provided.

English teacher July Cyrwus says that special education staff taught her respect for each child’s potential and persistence in overcoming difficulties. Before she co-taught, she gave up on children too easily, she says. “It was, ‘Well, I’ve done everything I can, it’s really not my problem anymore, it’s the special ed teacher’s problem.’ Now, it really is my problem because that child is my student,” she says.

Even so, some teachers remain lukewarm about co-teaching, says Butterfield. Some special education teachers, for instance, would prefer to lead their own classes rather than take a supporting role in the general education rooms. But those teachers are the exception rather than the norm, he adds.

To keep co-teaching running smoothly, administrators carefully screen teaching applicants. “We ask them what they know about inclusion? How do they feel about co-teaching?” says Assistant Principal Betty Martinez. Those who react negatively are turned away, Butterfield says.

Some goals remain elusive, however, Mather staff agree. For one, co-teachers need common planning periods, but as at other high schools, scheduling them is often unworkable. Instead, some teachers meet during a weekly staff development hour.

Ideally, all regular classes with special education students would be co-taught, but the School Board does not allot enough special education positions. Some regular teachers have a special education teacher with them two or three days a week, while others do without assistance.

Butterfield says the court monitors estimated Mather needs an additional seven positions to cover every class that needs a co-teacher, bringing its special education staff to 23. “Well, good luck on that one,” the principal remarks. “We’ll do it with what we have right now.”