Monday, March 22, 2010

Non-disabled students in NJ work to be more inclusive of their disabled classmates

From The Daily Record. In the picture, from left, Eileen Ceconi, 17, of Montville, Allison Werner, 15, of Morris Plains, Stephanie Jennis, 14, of Montville, Rusty Van Riper, 18, Montville and Alayna Shah, 14, of Morris Plains.

Montville High School senior Rusty Van Riper would see the students with disabilities sit together at lunch with their adult aides and after quickly eating, retreat to their self-contained classroom.

Van Riper and some of his friends decided to do something about it. So, every day, a group of general education students visit the self-contained class during lunch and play games with the other teens or take them for a walk in the hallways to mingle with other nondisabled teens.

"We wanted to bring them back into the real world," said the 18-year-old Van Riper.

Although "inclusion" of children with disabilities in general education classes is the goal of the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act, students say they often see missed opportunities in both academic and social settings throughout the school day.

Two dozen high school students from Montville, Morris Plains and Cranford are planning a rally this spring to bring attention to how New Jersey public schools can better integrate students with disabilities on a daily basis. Their work has already garnered the attention and respect of officials in the state Education Department. They also have a meeting in May scheduled with Acting Commissioner of Education Bret Schundler.

"I have been struck by how natural it is for them to identify strategies that would increase opportunities for children to interact with their disabled peers," said Roberta Wohle, director of the state education department's Office of Special Education Programs.

The students are selling yellow T-shirts that read "Include Me!" for $10 and hope to have 2,500 students in at least Montville and Morris Plains wear them to school on May 21, for a "Paint the Town Yellow" day. They're also selling the shirts in the community, hoping to have local businesses join in and wear the shirts the same day.

On May 22, the students are also holding a rally during a walkathon to benefit Pathways for Exceptional Children, a Montville-based advocacy group for children with disabilities.

The students currently serve as lead mentors for Pathways. The group is led by Montville mother Melinda Jennis who has worked since 2003 to integrate children with disabilities into their communities. Using children as her main resource, Jennis and Pathways will have trained 8,000 nondisabled children in 40 communities from Bergen to Gloucester counties in how to socialize and communicate with their disabled classmates by the end of this year. They've been trained by doing typical activities together, from playing sports to doing art and going to the movies together.

Jeanne Fichera, whose 15-year-old daughter Christine has mosaic Down syndrome, said she is grateful to the Montville students who began visiting her daughter's class during lunch. Her daughter saw the other students in the hallways at lunchtime but didn't have the confidence to join them herself. Christine looks forward to her "lunch buddies" and enjoys hanging out with the other students, she said.

"It's a big deal for her," Fichera said. "It shows the other kids they can interact with the (students with disabilities), they are human beings, too."

Despite being in general classes for chorus and keyboarding, most of her classes are self-contained with other children with disabilities, including gym, Fichera said.

"I wish the school would come up with some ideas, why does it have to be the kids," Fichera said.

The students say inclusion is not that hard to do, but educators often create "forced and contrived" means for meeting the technical language of the federal law. Van Riper said he sees the students with disabilities walk across his gym class to attend gym in a separate area.

"Gym is a class that should be easy enough to do inclusion; it doesn't make sense to me that they separate us," Van Riper said.

Students need to learn to work and play together in school in order to help tackle the reality of the adult world -- a 70 percent unemployment rate in New Jersey for people with disabilities, said Jennis' 14-year-old daughter, Stephanie Jennis, a Montville eighth-grader.

"If we're taught from kindergarten awareness of disabilities, by the time we're adults and become employers we will know how to modify things to employ people with disabilities," Stephanie Jennis said.

In January, 25 Pathways mentors got signed permission slips to take off a school day to attend a state Board of Education meeting to talk about how they want to be included with their special education classmates. They also spoke about how there needs to be education about disability rights in the schools.

The teens have been working with Wohle to recommend state standards for disability awareness and rights education beginning in the second grade. They want the state to include standards in social studies requiring schools to teach about disabilities, the causes, laws protecting individuals with disabilities and the challenges in society faced by those with disabilities.

"I'm taking AP (advanced placement) government this year and it's the first time I've ever learned about the Americans with Disabilities Act," said Eileen Ceconi, 17, a senior at Montville High. "I've been through almost 12 years of schooling and I've never heard about it before now.'

Wohle said the students have meaningful suggestions that the state is taking seriously. They have a unique perspective on the issue since they live in the schools each day, she said. And although some have siblings with disabilities or may have a learning disability themselves, not all are personally touched by aa disability.

"I have been struck by their sincerity and their motivation ... this is a passion for them," Wohle said. "They have created a momentum, there is no doubt at it."

Before they began working with Pathways, students said they didn't know how to approach classmates with disabilities. Nayna Shah, 14, a freshman at Morristown High School, said she had a classmate who had Tourette's syndrome during her elementary years in Morris Plains.

"No one knew what to do because he was always pulled out of class, even for gym," Shah said. "We didn't know how to approach him."