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LA schools grow more inclusive, but at what cost?

March 1, 2016 at 8:29 PM EDT
The Los Angeles school system has come far in the last ten years, especially in terms of inclusivity. In 2003, only 54 percent of LA’s disabled students were taught alongside their nondisabled peers; today, it’s more than 90 percent. But some parents worry that general education schools won’t provide the specialized attention their children require. John Tulenko of Education Week reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we take a break from politics.

Four decades after the federal government established special education services for students with disabilities, school districts around the country are still trying to live up to the law. Last week, we showed you some of the progress. But there are still big challenges ahead, and in some cases, questions about how well those efforts are working.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Education Week has the second of two stories he filed from California. It’s part of our weekly education series, Making the Grade, which airs Tuesdays on the “NewsHour.”

JOHN TULENKO: In Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school system, it took a class-action lawsuit filed in 1993 to bring attention to the failures in special education.

Teachers weren’t trained, records weren’t kept, and thousands of students were not receiving services.

Sharyn Howell, the district’s special education director, says progress has been made.

SHARYN HOWELL, Special Education Director, LA Unified School District: I think we have come a long ways. Even at that point in time in LAUSD and in other school districts, special education was still thought of as this was a very separate group of students and most of them were in segregated classes someplace.

JOHN TULENKO: But not anymore. Today, many of the problems have been resolved, especially when it comes to inclusion. In 2003, about half of all students with disabilities were taught alongside their non-disabled peers for the majority of the day. Now it’s 90 percent for students with learning or speech and language disabilities.

For other special education students, there’s still a ways to go. Seventeen-year-old Leo Villegas, who has Down syndrome, spends most of his day in a separate classroom. But even that’s beginning to change.

ROSIE VILLEGAS, Parent: I want Leo to be included in the community. I don’t want Leo to be segregated all the time. I mean, come on.

JOHN TULENKO: Rosie Villegas is Leo’s mother.

ROSIE VILLEGAS: I want other students or other people to see Leo and accept Leo the way he is, even if it doesn’t work, to try.

JOHN TULENKO: At his mother’s insistence, Leo is in a few general education classes like economics, but not without support.

Monet Gothard is with Leo all day, helping with his behavior and class work.

MONET GOTHARD, Behavior Intervention Therapist: I was reading a story to him, and then he was answering reading comprehension questions.

JOHN TULENKO: How often is Leo doing the same things as the other students in class?

MONET GOTHARD: Well, for it to be meaningful for Leo at the level that he’s at, the work has to be modified.

ROSS KRAMER, Special Education Teacher: It’s a good buzzword, gen ed. Put the kids in gen ed, gen ed, gen ed. I don’t know if it’s for everybody.

JOHN TULENKO: Most of the time, Leo is in Ross Kramer’s class, together with other students with intellectual disabilities.

ROSS KRAMER: I don’t, myself, usually send kids to general education unless it’s part of the meeting and the parents insist on that happening.


ROSS KRAMER: Would I have sent — because I don’t think they could access the curriculum as well. A lot of the work is being spoon-fed and done to them. And what are they retaining? What are they getting from that?

JOHN TULENKO: Others see it differently.

SHARYN HOWELL: That young man, when he leaves school, he’s not going to a special education job. He’s not going to a special education movie theater. And so it’s important for our students to be in that community of individuals that they’re going to spend the rest of their life with when they leave us.

JOHN TULENKO: With that in mind, Los Angeles has been phasing out schools that serve only students with disabilities, like McBride Special Education Center.

There, we met Brandon Buschini.

Would you like to go to a regular high school, yes or no?

JOHN TULENKO: Brandon, a 20-year-old high school senior, has physical and cognitive delays that prevent him from walking and speaking. He’s been at McBride since he was 3 years old.

BRANDON BUSCHINI, Student (through computer voice): No.

JOHN TULENKO: Ah. So you would like to stay here for school?

BRANDON BUSCHINI (through computer voice): Yes.

JOHN TULENKO: His mother agrees.

LINDA HILTON, Parent: I’m not against inclusion at all. I actually wanted him to be in a — quote, unquote — “regular school” when he was small. It’s just that, based on his needs, it’s the — it’s not the appropriate place for him.

JOHN TULENKO: Brandon requires a full-time health care aide, in addition to other assistance.

LINDA HILTON: He needs an occupational therapist. He needs a speech therapist. He needs a teacher that’s working with a speech therapist to be on the same page, an environment that he can access with his wheelchair. And you don’t find that anywhere else.

SHARYN HOWELL: All those things are available. We can make all those things available in a general education campus. Why would we not give those students an opportunity to have exposure to their general education peers?

LINDA HILTON: I would say that their job is to educate my child and my job is to socialize my child. A safe environment is important, and many of these other schools just aren’t safe.

JOHN TULENKO: Many buildings aren’t even accessible, lacking basic accommodations like ramps. Fixing that could cost over a billion dollars, twice as much as what’s been budgeted.

Brandon’s school is already equipped, but what about academics?

What are your education goals for Brandon?

LINDA HILTON: Working with the right teachers to actually access Brandon, because Brandon is fully capable of understanding in real time, but due to his developmental delays, it makes it difficult for all of us to communicate with him.

JOHN TULENKO: So, Brandon is fully there. Shouldn’t he be taking regular classes?

LINDA HILTON: It depends on the teacher and it depends on the services. So, that’s where it becomes a little bit tricky.

JOHN TULENKO: Because getting services isn’t easy, even for parents who support inclusion.

ROSIE VILLEGAS: Constantly, there is a fight with the school district because they’re saying, yes, we are providing service, when they’re not.

For example, Leo has an hour of speech a week. So, first, I call and say, what is the day that my son is going to be getting service? I go there, and the speech therapist is not there.

DAVID ROSTETTER, Independent Monitor, LA Unified School District: What you’re raising here is Outcome 13. Outcome 13 is the measure the school district has not been able to achieve.

JOHN TULENKO: David Rostetter, who was brought in by the courts to monitor special education here, is referring to the final requirement of L.A.’s longstanding lawsuit: At least 85 percent of students must receive 100 percent of their services.

DAVID ROSTETTER: The best the district has been able to do is to be, on average with service provision, 72 percent of the students receive 100 percent of it. That is absolutely, completely unacceptable.

JOHN TULENKO: Speech therapist Ashley Hall has 55 students between two schools. That’s about 11 students per day, plus at least an hour for paperwork, parent meetings and not to mention lunch.

ASHLEY HALL, Speech Therapist: So there are days that we have to accommodate the children in different ways. So maybe a child who you would see one on one, or one on two ends up being in a group of children with four or five, and they don’t necessarily get the time that they need.

Lowering caseloads would be a significant help. I had about 36 students when I was at a private clinic, and we saw success much more rapidly because those numbers were lower.

DAVID ROSTETTER: They lose speech therapists every year over this. You can’t perform in that environment.

SHARYN HOWELL: We know that, no matter how much work we do, there are always going to be teachers or administrators or parents who are going to push us and say, what you’re doing is not right, and that’s OK, because it makes us think about what we’re doing and it makes us really make sure that the programs that we do have meet everybody’s needs.

JOHN TULENKO: For Brandon Buschini’s family, it’s imperative he receives services. His mother and other parents have turned to the courts to keep schools like his open.

LINDA HILTON: So, this kind of speaks to the level of the law-breaking.

JOHN TULENKO: L.A. Unified declined to comment on the lawsuit, which is awaiting a court decision on whether the case will move forward.

In Los Angeles, California, I’m John Tulenko of Education Week, reporting for the “PBS NewsHour.”