Classroom inclusion in Montgomery County: Balancing the needs of special and regular students

For nearly ten years, the school system in Montgomery County has had a practice of inclusion of a broad range of special education students in regular classrooms. The practice is motivated by a concern that special education students be educated in the most normal environment from which they can benefit, and a concern that students at all ability levels be educated in a context that most closely represents the broad range of students and perspectives in their community.

Nationally there has been a trend in this direction, motivated by the mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to educate in the “least restrictive environment”, but Montgomery County has been in the fore-front. Some five years ago attention was brought to the county by the Oscar-winning documentary “Educating Peter”.

More recently we have received attention from a court case in which a child from Loudoun County who had been excluded from the regular classroom there, was enrolled in our schools and included. This case went through a series of court appeals until the Supreme Court refused to hear a lower court decision holding that Loudoun County could not be forced to include this child in its regular classrooms. We support this court decision, since it recognizes the importance of counties setting their own educational practices. The court in no sense mandated that the student not be included, nor did it deem that such inclusion was unsuccessful.

Despite this nationwide attention, and the attendant perception that many families move to Montgomery County with special education children, our special education percentages are not unusual: 13.7% of Montgomery County students are identified as special education, while surrounding school districts vary in their proportion of identified special education students from about 11.6% to 17.2%

Anecdotal experiences of some teachers, parents and students have raised the issue of the impact of this practice on non-special education students. Some special education students, especially those with severe behavior problems, can be sufficiently disruptive that they interfere excessively with the learning of other students. This is an important concern, since the needs of individual children cannot simply take precedence over the needs of many other children.

It was with this concern in mind that in 1996 the school board commissioned an audit of the special education program. While the report, submitted in January, 1997, did not address all the concerns the school board had, it did provide useful data concerning perceptions of the program from administrators, teachers and parents. While there was not unanimous support for the program, there was general support for it. And there was a clear articulation of the needs and limitations of the program. Those involved with the special education program are aware of these and are trying to address them.

For the school board, an important value of the report was that it put in a larger perspective the anecdotal evidence that some of us hear concerning the failures of the program. They obviously gain our attention, and tend to overshadow the success stories. In forming educational practices, it is not possible to satisfy everyone. It is necessary to balance a variety of considerations at one time. The audit suggests that from a broader perspective the concerns are by no means the rule. That does not mean that we should not be doing all we can to address the legitimate concerns. But it does mean that they are not all that is happening: We have hundreds of success stories of wonderful work by capable, caring teachers with our diverse student body.

Most everyone would agree that students who are excessively disruptive, or who cannot sufficiently benefit from a regular classroom, should not be there. While there seems to be an impression that all special education students in Montgomery County are fully included in regular classrooms, the actual figures give a different picture: Out of 1275 identified special education students (at the end of the 1996–97 school year) 608 were fully included, 582 received pull-out services for less than half of the day, 48 received pull-out services for half or more of the day, and 37 were placed in other educational environments.

The decision where to place a special education student lies with that student's IEP (Individual Educational Program) Committee, which is made up of the parents, teachers, principal and a representative from the special education program. That committee is legally vested with the power to make decisions in the best interests of the student about the placement of the student. That is not a power that the school board has been given. The interests of other students in the classroom are represented by the principal and the teacher. The IEP committee then addresses the negative effects of a given child on others, and manages those effects with behavior plans or more restrictive environments.

There is a general tendency in the school system to take account of the interests of other students at least partly in terms of the value of on-going interaction with a wide variety of peers. Most everyone is impressed by how well our students handle the diverse range of students in their classes, and most people affirm the value of that. Certainly that was an implication of the “Educating Peter” documentary. But we also need to insure adequate consideration of the academic interests and safety of other students as well.

Good decisions about individual students are best made on a case-by-case basis, since each case is unique. This puts a lot of responsibility on the teachers, and parents of students who interact with the special education student, to speak up to principals about the specific situations. It also puts responsibility on the IEP committee to weigh those factors along with the interests of the special education student.

The program of inclusion puts a lot of responsibility on classroom teachers to be prepared and able to address the educational and other needs of a wide variety of students, with the assistance of aides. The audit made clear that for the inclusion program to succeed it was necessary that teachers get adequate training in differentiating their instruction, that class sizes be reasonably small, and that they get adequate support from special education consulting teachers. The administration and school board are aware of these needs, and are addressing them as best they can. Certainly these needs are among the factors that drive our budget requests each year. We are pleased to see, however, that some teachers and parents feel free to speak up publicly about the shortcomings of our arrangements. This is vital to the sound workings of any successful system. We hope that others will do so when necessary.

Nationwide the educational practice of inclusion is growing, not going away. While Montgomery County is a leader in this area, and thus is experiencing many of the growth pains of a new program, we have also gained valuable experience from this. The issue is no longer whether to have inclusion, but how best to handle it.

We want to know where the problems are, so that adjustments can be made. However it is not appropriate for the system to have a general policy that emotionally disturbed children, or other categories of special education students, be excluded from the regular classroom. We need to be able to make individualized judgements about what is best for all students concerned. Those judgements cannot ignore or discount the interests of special education students, nor can they ignore or discount the interests of regular education students. There are no easy solutions to such cases, and there are certainly no general solutions to such cases. Therefore we seek the patience as well as the participation of all those who are affected by this program.

We are proud of the leadership the school administrators, teachers and aides have taken in the area of inclusion and the work they have done, and we are also proud of the accomplishments of all of our students.

James C. Klagge
Blacksburg, Virginia

Fred S. Morton IV, Superintendent