Here's an old fashioned Polar Bear exhibit. Some effort has been made, but even if you haven't spent much of your life glued to Frozen Planet on the Discovery Channel you instinctively know that this isn't the kind of home a polar bear would choose. The tire swings and poolette are intended to give the bear some mental and physical stimulation, but I doubt this cage provides a quality of life worthy of such a magnificent creature. Zoos are getting better, but they still face the challenge of being ambassadors of wild creatures even as they keep the creatures in exhibits that, at best, mimic small parts of an animal's habitat - kind of like trying to design a school that serves the needs of all its students.
Brian Rosenthal takes a close look at how Seattle School District, my district, is failing to serve its special education students. Seattle has had a revolving door of leadership positions, something that prevents it from being consistent with quality services to any demographic. The article is informative, but it doesn't paint as good a picture of the situation as the comment strand, where frustrated parents, teachers and voters face off and let loose with a cruel honesty (and inaccuracy) that only anonymity can provide.
Just as most zoos no longer keep polar bears in little cages, most schools are trying to provide the most authentic learning experience for their students with special needs. Self-contained classrooms seem as archaic as the polar bear cage, but mainstreaming students with special needs often overwhelms a teacher already stretched past capacity.
Parents can't design the right habitat, either. Ask a polar bear's mother what she wants for her offspring and she'll tell you 20,000 square miles, privacy, and the freedom to hunt seals. That's not possible in a zoo, and there are things - things every single parent wants for her child - that are not possible in a classroom of 25-32 students.
But many things are possible. The situation described in Rosenthal's article is avoidable. Strong leadership, a clear vision, supportive oversight and meaningful communication so that parents feel both informed and heard are essential first steps. Reducing class size is a necessary second step. The planning, communication, and collaboration required to serve a student with an IEP take more time than a teacher with 32 students has. General ed teachers should have class sizes that allow them to take care of each child's needs instead of class sizes that turn teaching into trying to outrun an avalanche.
Dr. Jerome Schultz, a clinical neuropsychologist and former special ed teacher, does a beautiful job explaining the problems in special education and the value of what he calls a "hybrid teacher." The situation with inclusion efforts he describes almost exactly matches the problems described in Rosenthal's article. Inclusion is well-intended, but too often badly implemented. The co-teaching model he describes exists in my current school, Eckstein, where general ed and special ed teachers team teach, supporting each other and their students.
Fortunately, we have more options when we're talking about educating our children than when we're talking about housing a polar bear in the city. There are schools that effectively mainstream students with special needs, and there are schools that practice effective inclusion. We just need to implement successful practices.
What I want to know, though, is whether there are schools where each classroom has a tire swing, because that would take my lunch break to a whole new level.