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December 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 4

How Inclusion Built a Community of Learners

For a Georgia school system, the decision to include students with severe disabilities in the regular classroom has resulted in learning that exceeds all expectations.

The Gwinnett County Public Schools, Georgia's second largest district, is now involved in its third year of inclusion. In our classrooms, the presence of students with severe disabilities has not only sparked understanding and acceptance of differences, but has also motivated our students to engage in worthwhile and high-level intellectual activity. Teachers today more fully recognize the value of inclusion because they see its power as an effective instructional practice.
One of our earliest experiences with the inclusion of a child with severe disabilities convinced us of the merits of inclusion as a way to motivate students and support authentic learning. Katie helped her classmates find a deeper purpose as they learned to read, write, and solve problems. As advocates for their friend with disabilities, these 1st graders (now in 3rd grade) were inspired to reach out to the community, the state, and the nation. They also developed empathy and compassion, qualities that will help them in school and in life.

Learning to Make a Difference

During the first week of school, Katie joined a heterogeneous class of 22 1st graders at Gwin Oaks Elementary, located in a suburb of Atlanta. Gwin Oaks serves about 900 students, approximately 1 percent of whom have disabilities. When Katie joined the 1st grade class, six of the regular education students were experiencing difficulties learning to read and write. Consequently, a teaching assistant was assigned to the class to provide extra help.
Katie experienced visual impairment, multiple physical disabilities, and moderate intellectual disability. Her educational goals focused on learning to speak in sentences, using her vision more effectively, improving her limited motor functioning, and developing her academic and cognitive skills to their potential.
Katie received support in the class approximately two hours per day from a special education teacher or a special education teacher assistant. (Our district provides one special education teacher and one special education paraprofessional for every five inclusion students.) While in the regular education class, these special education staff not only taught Katie, but also co-taught with the regular classroom teacher and the teaching assistant. In addition, they shared their expertise in individualized instruction and assessment. During the day Katie also received instruction from her classmates through cooperative learning activities, peer tutoring, and buddy programs.
Whenever possible, Katie's educational goals were integrated across the curriculum. For example, during math, while the other students were learning to add single-digit numerals, Katie was learning to count to “2,” make number sets of “2,” and grasp paper items without crushing them. She would pick up two flash cards with numerals written on them and show them to a peer, who would then add the numerals and state their sum. During spelling, while other children were writing the spelling words, Katie was learning to speak in a voice that could be heard by her peers. The classroom teacher would whisper the spelling word to Katie, who had to repeat the word loud enough for her classmates to hear so that they could write the word on their papers.

Reaching Out to the World

In the spring, the class was involved in an interdisciplinary study on creating change. The focus question for the unit was “How can I make a change in my community?” As one activity, the 1st graders had written letters to the mayor stating their views on handicapped access and asking what the town planned to do about access problems. After receiving the mayor's reply, they discussed his response.
The next day, the teacher focused the children's attention on a local newspaper article about President Clinton's press conference on educational issues. During the conference, Anastasia Somoza, a young girl with cerebral palsy from New York, had asked the president why she could attend a regular class while her twin sister had to attend a special education class. The only difference, explained Anastasia, was that she could talk, whereas her sister used an electronic communication device. Anastasia could not understand why some children were separated into special classes, and others were not.
Needless to say, all the 1st graders agreed with Anastasia, having first-hand knowledge of the benefits they and Katie had received from inclusion! As they discussed the pros and cons of inclusion, the focus question for the unit on “Changing Our Community” became “How can I make a change in my country and help other children like Katie?” They were so excited about their discussion that they decided to write to President Clinton.
During their writing time, the students composed letters to the president, relating the many ways that Katie was learning from them and that they were learning from her. For example, they wrote: Dear Mr. President,I wont to tal you abat a frind of my named Katie. She is handcap. She cant wlk so she has a whelchare....I like Katie bekos I like to pla weth her. I like to help her weth her work. I like to count with her. We have to tel her no, win she wants to kes and grab. We are teching her hou to be weth pepl....Respectfully,CindyDear Mr. President,We have a girl and shes hadycap. Her name is Katie. Shes verey speshll to are cllas. She has a speshll job in are cllas. She does are lunch count everey morning....She likes to read books. She can't read by herself, but we read to her. Me and Katie like to rede together. She holds the other side of the book and repete after me....I am glad that Katie's in are cllas inted of a specialed cllas....Respectfully,Mary
Copies of the letters were posted in the hallway. As word spread about Katie's class and the work the kids were doing as advocates for people with disabilities, the students began to feel empowered as learners.

Continuing to Grow

Throughout the year, many parents related how Katie's presence in the class had enriched the lives of their child and their family. When the classroom teacher announced to the parents that she planned to keep the class intact and move to 2nd grade with them, many parents requested that Katie stay with the class.
In the fall of 2nd grade, an Atlanta newspaper sent a reporter to interview the students about their experiences with Katie. When the article about their classroom appeared, the students were outraged that the writer had described Katie as “mentally retarded.” They had always considered Katie “handicapped,” not “retarded,” a negative word in their view.
This discussion in turn sparked another exchange about the use of words and the community's responsibility to inform the media about these issues. Once again, the focus question changed, this time to “How do words influence how people see things?” A second area of exploration became, “How can we help our community know that words can hurt?” The students felt so passionate about this issue that they decided to skip their Exploratory Centers for the day and, instead, write letters to the editor of the paper.
Over a two-year period, these children came to take pride in knowing that Katie was learning more with them than she had when she was in a special education class. They took on the role of advocate, telling anyone who would listen that Katie needed to be with them to develop social, communication, and academic skills. They, in turn, became aware that Katie was teaching them many things—for example, that all people are different, that everyone has distinct strengths and weaknesses, and that we all might need help from one another at various times.

Applying Learning Beyond the Classroom

The Gwinnett County Public Schools has not only found inclusion to work for children with disabilities, but has also observed its value as an effective instructional practice to motivate all students. We feel that two factors are critical to the effectiveness of the district's inclusion efforts: (1) effective collaboration among classroom teachers and the special education staff, and (2) a weekly block of instructional planning time.
Katie's story is but one of many successes we have witnessed over the past few years, but Katie is special to us, because her experience, during the first year, was instrumental in the decision to continue our inclusion efforts. Over the past three years, we have successfully included 32 elementary and 6 middle school students.
Not only did Katie benefit from the relationships she developed with the children in her class, but they too gained from the experience. In addition to becoming more effective problem solvers, Katie's classmates learned to apply their learning to local, state, and national issues. Ultimately, we hope that they will take with them the lesson that issues, events, and systems are interrelated and that their actions can have an impact on the world.
End Notes

1 All students' names used in this article are pseudonyms.

Kent R. Logan has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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