Parents, experts make the case for inclusive schools

Parents, experts make the case for inclusive schools

Laura Castañeda

Elena Polansky was living in Chicago with her family and looking for a school that could serve the needs of her eldest daughter, Sophia, who uses a wheelchair and is nonverbal.

Her search led her to the CHIME Institute’s Schwarzenegger Community School, which she believed offered the vital educational and supplemental services her special-needs daughter required.

After Sophia was admitted to the school, Polansky and her three children moved more than 1,700 miles west to be nearer to the Woodland Hills, Calif., school. CHIME stands for Community Honoring Inclusive Model Education.

“At CHIME, if you asked her friends to tell you about Sophia, no one would say, ‘She’s in a wheelchair.’ They would say, ‘She’s a big flirt, she has long brown hair, she’s really funny and she causes lots of trouble,’” says Polansky, adding that her daughter is now a thriving high school senior — and a cheerleader.

Since 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has required that special-needs students spend as much time as possible with peers who do not receive special education. And research shows that inclusive schools like CHIME are better academically, socially and emotionally for all students.

However, finding schools that practice true inclusion can be challenging. Too many still pull special-needs students out of general education classrooms and offer watered-down versions of the curriculum, says Frances Stetson, president of the Houston-based educational consulting firm Stetson & Associates Inc.

“Separate is not equal,” says Stetson, adding that inclusion is one of the most complex yet growing civil-rights issues facing education today.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that 1 in 5 children in the U.S. have brain-based learning and attention issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, among others. And those numbers rise if students with physical, intellectual and/or developmental disabilities are included.

Inclusion has many benefits, says Barbara Trader, executive director of TASH, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group working to advance inclusive practices.

“For more than 30 years, research has shown that all students — with and without disabilities — do better when taught in the same classrooms with same-age peers,” she says. “This kind of school culture improves teacher responsiveness to a wide array of unique learning needs and helps students develop into socially conscious, empathetic adults.”

Real inclusion involves all children, not just those with disabilities. It brings together general and special education in new ways to address each and every student, says Amy McCart, director of technical assistance for the SWIFT Center at the University of Kansas, which helps K-8 schools implement inclusive academic instruction.

“At SWIFT, general and special educators work in concert, supporting one another for the benefit of all students. We can no longer rely on segmented or separate buildings or classrooms,” she says.

Finding an inclusive school can be challenging, however, especially because of the range of districts across the U.S. Some schools, like CHIME, admit students via lottery only. Others require students to live within a geographical location.

Educate, investigate and advocate

The Internet is an invaluable tool to learn about your rights and find appropriate resources.

Start with the U.S. Department of Education, and move on to general websites from groups such as, a free online resource for parents of children with learning and attention issues and the Inclusive Schools Network, which promotes inclusive educational practices. You can also check with your local school district. Next, go to sites that are specific to your child’s needs, such as the National Autism Association.

Once you identify a school, visit the campus or schedule a phone call with an administrator or head of special education.

TASH’s Trader recommends asking the following: Does the school state a commitment to inclusion in its mission? Do general and special education teachers collaborate and co-teach? Do you see evidence of students with disabilities as full members of the school? What kinds of support are available to teachers?

Getting into the right school is just the first step. You must advocate for your child and learn to work as a team with educators.

It takes time and energy to find the right school, but the payoff can be profound.

Johanna Korpinen looked extensively for a school for her 9-year-old daughter, Emilia, who is autistic and nonverbal. Then she found CHIME.

Thanks to a speech therapist and an iPad with voice recognition, Korpinen says her daughter started “talking” in kindergarten.

“All of a sudden, I heard a girl’s voice on the iPad. ‘My name is Emilia.’ I burst into tears. It was the first time I heard my child’s voice,” she says.