More special education students in general classrooms?

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The Flagler School District may begin placing an increasing number of special education students in regular classrooms, a move Flagler Schools Exceptional Student Education Director Tracy Umpenhour said would benefit traditional students as well as those with learning disabilities.

“There’s a lot of research on inclusion, and why it benefits everyone, not just children with disabilities but children without disabilities and their families,” she said in a presentation at a Flagler County School Board workshop Tuesday morning. “We’re not just going to dump these kids into a general education class. We have had many, many conversations about how we’re going to support this.”

Umpenhour said she would like to see the district’s percentage of special education students in separate classes keep pace with the state average of 14%. In Flagler County, it’s 19%.

“We have done some inclusion at this point. Both middle schools are fully included, but we’re still missing the boat because we’re not doing it early on,” she said, “Pre-K, we’re starting next year.”

The students the district would be integrating, she said, would for the most part not be students with serious medical or emotional needs, autism or serious cognitive disabilities who are in district “cluster programs” customized to their unique needs.

Instead, they would generally be students who are performing two or three grades below their grade level.

Umpenhour said research has shown that students with learning disabilities who go from separate classrooms to integrated ones show increases in test scores and reading comprehension, while their peers without disabilities get a lesson on inclusion and diversity.

“It will no longer be, ‘Oh, you’re special, you’re on the little bus.’ We need to get away from that stigma,” she said.

But integrating more students into general education classrooms, she said, would require careful planning and professional development for teachers unaccustomed to instructing children with disabilities.

The potential extra load on teachers concerned School Board Vice Chairwoman Colleen Conklin. “The teachers are stretched so thin right now,” she said. “If we do this, we really need to make sure that there’s the support.”

Becoming a more inclusive district, Umpenhour said, costs about $300,000 for extra staff, including three additional teachers, two additional paraprofessionals, a behavior specialist and a dean. Much of that could come from grant money instead of the district’s general fund, she said, and the district could save about $240,000 per year by going in-house for physical and occupational therapy programs.

Conklin said she could be supportive of moving more special education students into general classrooms, but she wants to make sure the district first researches “all the variables” of why other inclusive programs have been successful.

“If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right,” she said. “If we’re not going to do it right, then we have an obligation not to do it. But it’s not the kind of thing that can be done halfway.”

School Board Chairman Andy Dance said he supports inclusion efforts but wants to make sure the district answers parents’ questions about the ramifications of moving students with learning disabilities into general education classrooms.

“We have to over-communicate the importance of the program. And to the parents that have questions, we need to make sure that we provide these same answers,” he said. “The fears of parents of children without disabilities is that there’s a misconception that their education is going to suffer through inclusion. So we have to make clear that this is an overall improvement.”

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