East Maine schools working to integrate special-needs students
Apollo School teacher Michael Simon helps sixth-graders receive support based on their skill levels as part of District 63's efforts to integrate more special-needs students into general education classes. | Natasha Wasinski~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 4, 2013 6:45AM
MAINE TOWNSHIP — East Maine School District 63 is educating school staff, students and parents over the next year on efforts to integrate special-needs students into classrooms with their peers.
The seven-school elementary district, which serves portions of unincorporated Maine Township, Niles, Park Ridge, Morton Grove and Glenview, aims to exceed state targets for educational environments with special education students by December 2013.
The Illinois State Board of Education monitors how successful school districts are in creating the most inclusive environment appropriate to a child’s abilities. One way is by measuring the number of students with an Individualized Education Program that spend 80 percent or more of the school day in general education settings.
While District 63 is meeting a state target by having half its special-needs population spend most of their time in a general classroom, a quarter of students are still not being educated with their peers, reported Greg Bublitz, interim director of special services.
Illinois schools, overall, rank near the bottom of the 50 states in achieving a high percentage of students in the least restrictive learning environment.
“The data suggests we are not serving our kids as (well) as we can,” Bublitz said.
Parents aired their concerns about placing students with extra needs in general education classes during a Dec. 5 Board of Education meeting. Some expressed worry that their child would endure undue stress or get lost in the shuffle. Others wondered how already large class sizes and overburdened teachers would be able to properly accommodate students with disabilities.
Bublitz said while the school district would continue to determine the support services needed for students on a case-by-case basis, a general education environment would be considered when appropriate. Consequently District 63 is focusing its resources toward better supporting students, such as by having additional teachers in classrooms and providing differentiated instruction.
Under federal law school districts must, where appropriate, educate children with disabilities with non‐disabled peers.
If a general education environment is not possible, separate instruction is an option. A continuum of placements and supplementary services must be offered, which may include instruction in special classes or schools, at home, or in a hospital setting.
Bublitz said research studies have shown time and time again that special needs students are more likely to thrive when immersed with their peers.
On the contrary, there is little to no evidence that suggests seclusion is better for a child.
“How can we justify separating students from their peers if we know they can reach better potential learning?” Bublitz said.
District 63 Board Member Tom Simmons said while mainstreaming may not be for everyone, generally-speaking it would be a positive change for most, including non-disabled children who are learning about different disabilities.
Providing access to the same instruction will allow all children to learn how to get along, said Superintendent Scott Clay.
“It does no good for students to be isolated in school and then enter the world,” Clay said. “We’re doing these things because they’re right for kids.”