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Partnership of peers

Disabled students blend right in within West Hernando Middle’s regular classes. Inclusion pairs them with peers and both groups benefit and learn.

By TOM MARSHALL
Published May 22, 2006


BROOKSVILLE — Vinnie Lampasona is severely disabled. He can’t say his name, get out of his wheelchair or turn the pages of a book without help.

But when he and classmate Kristine Rowan were wheeled into their reading class on a recent afternoon — each accompanied by a special aide and a nondisabled friend — there was little reaction. Their middle-school classmates just continued working on a year-end project.

That’s the way things operate at West Hernando Middle School, which experts say is a model for bringing disabled and general education students  into the same classes — a process called inclusion.

“They’re actually including kids with severe disabilities in their general education classrooms and embedding what (students) need to learn in the general education curriculum,” said Vicki Barnitt of the Florida Inclusion Network at the University of South Florida. “The expectation is that these kids can learn, and that they do learn. And that it can be meaningful for them.”

Inclusion is not a new idea in special education circles. But while some deride it as a costly experiment that disrupts the education of general education students, research shows it can benefit both disabled students and their general-education peers.

What West Hernando has done better than perhaps any other public school in Florida, Barnitt said, is create a network of general education students who know their classmates with special needs, have helped them learn and even socialized with them on weekends.

“West Hernando Middle School is different in that it’s a huge program with a large group of peers,” she said. “It’s extremely unique.”

***

It was the week before Mother’s Day and Rick Chalue’s career skills class was bustling. The room was crowded with computers, wheelchairs, bright bottles of ink and a variety of printing equipment.

Privacy laws don’t allow Exceptional Student Education teachers to specify the exact nature of students’ disabilities, but this class includes students with serious physical or cognitive disabilities —- such as cerebral palsy or autism-spectrum disorders —- as well as general education students.

Vinnie was choosing a color for a new coffee mug he was designing, speaking through an Audiovox computer device to his aide, Rose Schavel. Whenever she asked a question, he would find the computer icon that voiced his answer.

“Vinnie, do you want red?” she asked.

“Yes,” Vinnie said.

“Do you want blue?”

“No.”

Seventh-grader Erica Aguiar, one of about 90 general education students in the school’s peer support program, said she no longer sees her disabled friends as being different. “It takes them a little longer to process in their brains, but that’s it,” she said.

Peers in the program spend an elective period helping 15 disabled students attend regular classes, and visit 12 others whose medical problems make inclusion difficult or dangerous.

The 1,150-student school hopes to enroll as many as 150 students in the peer support elective next year, principal Joe Clifford said.

***

In a nation where most schools are still figuring out how inclusion should work, Florida ranks in the bottom quarter of all states in bringing disabled students into general classrooms.

More than 20 percent of Florida’s special education students spent most of their school day separated from their general education peers in 2004, according to data reported to Congress. By contrast, 3.3 percent of special education students in New Hampshire and 4.2 percent in North Dakota were segregated.

Federal law says schools must educate students in the “least restrictive environment” possible. That means schools must justify every minute disabled students don’t spend in regular classes.

Research shows that even disruptive special-needs students enjoy being with their general-education peers and often calm down as they adapt to inclusion, said Diane Ryndak, associate professor of special education at the University of Florida.

“To be honest with you, I was concerned about some of the kids we were putting in,” said Mike Pilla, an ESE inclusion specialist at West Hernando. “(But) we never, never see outbursts in the regular classes.”

Talented students continue to do well, and other at-risk or mildly disabled students have been shown to actually improve under inclusion as their teachers become more adept at reaching them, Ryndak said.

Even though the district clusters special-needs students in a few schools — something that saves no money in the long run and makes it harder for students to forge community links —- West Hernando’s peer group network makes inclusion work, she said.

“Of the districts I know, I think they’re doing the nicest job with that,” Ryndak said. “Because while it might not be perfect, it’s working, and all kids are benefiting.’’

General education students in West Hernando’s peer program say it has changed their lives.

“I know that I can help them,” said seventh-grader Austin Brooks. “I’ve become more patient and caring with people. You’re actually getting a long-term friend.”

He said his friend Vinnie was just a “regular teenage boy going to school,” a student who understands his environment even if he can’t always describe it easily.

“When we do math, he knows what he’s supposed to do and when we’re supposed to do it,” Austin said. “When we’re in sixth period, he’ll go ahead and pull up the 'home’ screen (on his Audiovox) because he knows he’s going home.”

***

Vinnie and Kristine Rowan settle into their work in reading class. The students are making three-dimensional “amusement parks” to dramatize some of the books they’ve read during the year.

Seventh-grader Terrencia Iles helps Vinnie make some light posts with toothpicks and clay. She puts the clay in his hand and then helps guide it to the target.

Behind them, ESE teachers Pilla and Maureen Finelli hover, but rarely step in to help.

Terrencia puts a blue pencil in Vinnie’s fist so he can color. The two students move their hands together and Vinnie smiles.

Then Pilla whispers something in his ear, and Vinnie reaches up to wipe some drool from his mouth with his bandanna.

Everyone has been talking about the big adventure Vinnie is planning. He will be skydiving with his parents, or perhaps hang gliding. As the class ends, he finds the right screen to convey his anticipation.

“Monday we will go hang gliding,” Vinnie said. “I am so psyched.”

 Outside, students hurry to their next class as Aretha Franklin belts out her anthem to R-E-S-P-E-C-T over loud speakers in the courtyard.

A student walks by using a metal walker with wheels, determinedly keeping up with his friends and attracting no particular attention. He fits right in.

[Last modified May 22, 2006, 22:31:29]


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