March 24, 1998
Perhaps special education isn't so special. Some parents are placing their disabled children in mainstream classes to develop better social skills.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
March 19, 1998
A study find that a combination of phonics and "whole language" techniques is the best way to teach reading.
March 11, 1998
Scientists find a neurological basis for dyslexia.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of education.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Every Sunday afternoon the Hartmann family of suburban Washington, exchanges hugs and kisses goodbye as Roxanna and 12-year-old son Mark head out for a four-hour drive South to Blacksburg, Virginia, where mother and son live Monday through Friday. Mark and his mother endure the separation from home and family for one reason, so that Mark, who is autistic, can attend a regular public school and be included in a mainstream classroom. Mark had attended a mainstream classroom back at home in Loudin County, Ashburn Elementary School. But after a year there, school officials said he wasn't learning anything and was too disruptive to other students. Kathy Mehfoud is a Richmond attorney who represents the Loudin County School Board.
KATHY MEHFOUD, Attorney, Loudin County Schools: He was not learning at all from the instruction that was occurring in the regular classes. It was just constant vocalizations, temper tantrums, hitting. All of these types of behaviors were disruptive for the teacher and for the educational process for the other students.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Loudin County wanted to move Mark to a self-contained special education program with other autistic youngsters, but Mark's parents were adamant that that wasn't right for their son.
JOSEPH HARTMANN: The children do not have a structured day, and they're given basically meaningless activities to perform to abide their time, so they're not just doing nothing. They're swinging in a swing; they're stacking blocks; they're playing guessing games, putting their hand into a black bag and trying to guess what it is that they're feeling.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: When the Loudin school board refused to keep Mark in a regular classroom, the Hartmanns sued, eventually trying but failing to get their case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, they decided to make the long commute to Blacksburg after they found out its school system would place mark in mainstream classes.
Much needed interaction with regular students provides social skills for disabled kids.
Mark is non-verbal, which means he doesn't communicate with words. Instead, he expresses himself by making noises to show his feelings. In Blacksburg, Mark has a full-time aide who stays with him throughout the school day. His teachers say he can follow words when read to and can write words with the aid of a special communicative device. When we visited, Mark's classmates appeared at ease with his disability. Although Mark is included in all of the day's activities, much of the time he seems to be in a world of his own. But Mark's parents insist their son needs to be in a normal environment, so he can better function in society as he gets older.
ROXANNA HARTMANN: He needs to be surrounded by language and communication. Being non-verbal, he needs to have that feedback very consistently throughout his day, and if he is in a regular classroom with regular kids, even though he doesn't talk, we would be able to better receptive language with him. And then we will be able to get communication.
JOSEPH HARTMANN: Our goal is to have Mark be as independent as he can be, given all of the opportunities to get him there, so that when it comes to the time when Roxanna and I aren't around anymore, that at least Mark will be able to independently live on his own perhaps, or in a group home, that he has a job of some sort or another.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Gary McCoy, principal of the Blacksburg Middle School, agrees with the Hartmanns. His school strongly endorses the policy of inclusion, a growing movement in public education that believes with the proper supports, all disabled children can succeed in regular classes.
"Kids here in this building, they don't think twice. They don't see handicaps..."
GARY MC COY: Ten or 15 years ago when you would see a student or a handicapped person in a wheelchair, out on the street, or wherever, you would look twice. Kids here in this building, they don't think twice. They don't see handicaps, I don't think. We all have handicaps in a lot of different ways, and they respect, I think they have grown to respect, whether a child's in a wheelchair, or a child's in a walker, or a child has a problem processing something from the book.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Every week Mark's mother and his teachers meet to coordinate his activities. Nancy Koeber is Mark's special ed advisor. She says that, besides becoming better adjusted socially, Mark is making academic progress.
NANCY KOEBER: I think that for the short time he's been here we've definitely seen Mark make progress. In social studies class he participates and takes notes with all the other students, and he is getting ready to take a quiz that we looked at this morning that will be the same as the other students in the class.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In 1975, the federal government passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA, which makes it illegal to deny a "free appropriate public education" to handicapped children. Back then, most disabled youngsters were placed in separate special ed programs. But recently, some parents and educators have asked, why can't special ed come to a regular classroom?
SPOKESMAN: I'll tell you it's with great pleasure that I introduce and represent to you, Judy Heumann.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Judy Heumann is the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education. Heumann had polio as a child and wasn't allowed to attend public school until the fourth grade. She says government studies show when disabled kids are placed in mainstream classes with the right supports, they do better than in separate programs.
Is IDEA a good idea?
JUDY HEUMANN: I feel that what we're trying to do in education is teach children academics. But we're also trying to teach children about diversity and about differences. So if kids are not going to school together, they are not going to learn how to live as adults in the same community. And the goal of education for us is to assure that disabled children graduate from school, can move into a higher education, or into the world of work. And we still have pretty staggering rates of unemployment for disabled adults, although we are seeing improved results for children who come through IDEA.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not all educators or parents agree with Heumann.
CONNIE RUSSO: I'm worried because a lot of people start believing in this and start putting their kids in this and as I've said to many of the my parents, the bottom line comes at the age of 21, and when you ask me why the child is still not reading and why the child is still not where they think that child should be, what kind of an answer do you give?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Connie Russo is director of special education for the Massapequa, New York School District of Long Island.
CONNIE RUSSO: If you're looking at a child who could make it, who needs that educational piece, who needs the intensity of a special ed program, then you don't want to put them into an inclusive program. You want to keep them in a self-contained class, so that you can really hit them--and when I say hit them hard in terms of education, in terms of reading and writing, and all the basics--you can't do that in a regular class.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Eleven-year-old Janine Pasquale was born with Downs Syndrome. She currently attends a special ed program in Massapequa. All the children in this class have some form of disability. Russo says a child like this would never be successful in a regular classroom, and Janine's Mother, Pat Pasquale, agrees.
"I think if she was in a regular class, she would really realize what she cannot do."
PAT PASQUALE: If she was in an inclusive program, I don't think she would have the self-esteem that she has, she really thinks she's wonderful and she really, she's very confident with herself and she's very happy in what she does accomplish. I think if she was in a regular class, she would really realize how, what she cannot do.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some parents feel so strongly about special classes for their disabled children that they look for private schools like the Mary McDowell School in Brooklyn. Tuition here is $17,000 a year. A number of these learning disabled children were once in regular mainstream classes in public schools. Peter Caras remembers what that was like for him.
PETER CARAS: I just didn't understand, like it felt like everything was running around in my head. It'd be like huh, huh, in my head, like I'd keep on trying to figure it out, but I would be like what is this because I wouldn't understand at all.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How did you feel about yourself when you were in public school?
PETER CARAS: Terrible. I said, Peter, you're, like I said, dumb, like--I acted like--I thought I was really like and--stupid.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Debra Zlotowitz is the principal of Mary McDowell.
DEBRA ZLOTOWITZ: Children with learning disabilities typically come to us feeling depressed, feeling overwhelmed, feeling that they are dumb. There are eight to 10 children in each of our classes with two trained teachers. So they get lots and lots of individualized help. Because the teachers are trained, they know specialized methods to help children learn to read, write, to compute, to understand.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But financial reality for many parents like the Hartmanns means relying on public schools, and the Hartmanns remain convinced that the most appropriate way for son Mark to get the most out of public school is in a regular classroom.
JOSEPH HARTMANN: If you don't do this, we know what happens. And if you look at Virginia, just to pick a state, 189,000 Virginians are in institutions who are disabled at a cost of some $87,000 a year-- each-- cost to the taxpayers. If we were able to get Mark independent, earning a wage, and being a productive member of society, I think that's the better way to go.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Again, Attorney Mehfoud.
KATHY MEHFOUD: There's no question that socialization is a part of education; however, socialization cannot be the goal of education without regard to teaching the students their academics. A lot of the inclusion movement is premised on having students with disabilities sit in regular classes and look normal, whether they're participating in the educational program or not.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: There is no question that Mark Hartmann is getting socialization skills being around other kids. Here he sets off a rocket to the cheers of his classmates. Whether he is also learning skills that will make it possible for him to live on his own someday won't be known for years. Meanwhile, the debate over how children like Mark are best served will grow as more and more school systems experiment with inclusion.