Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Inclusion classrooms in NJ benefit all students

From the Courier-Post in N.J. in the picture, second-graders Evan Gershon and Peter Mikes take part in a building exercise during a class at the A. Russell Knight School in Cherry Hill, N.J.

A program being piloted at A. Russell Knight School this year could be the future blueprint for learning in the district's inclusion classrooms -- where special needs children learn alongside typically developing youngsters.

"Universal Design for Learning" is a technology-supported curriculum that had its beginnings in architecture and product development, where items are universally designed to accommodate a wide variety of users. Though the program is not brand new, Knight facilitator Waleska Batista knows of no other South Jersey district that is using it.

At Knight, it began in September for the math portion of a second-grade inclusion class with great results, Batista said.

"The title itself lends itself to all learners. This is the perfect inclusivity jumping-off point," Principal George Guy said.

Knight is expected to become one of five inclusion elementary schools in the district -- along with Woodcrest, Stockton, Cooper and Kingston -- that in 2011-12 will have an inclusion class at each grade level.

The inclusion classes, led by co-teachers -- one a regular classroom teacher, the other a special education teacher -- are thought to be beneficial for both special needs students and typically developing ones.

The curriculum is geared to small groups that are reshuffled as they move through four math-related activity centers. The result is a daily, hourlong round-robin.

"We mix up the students by ability, depending on what the activity is, but the children don't know who is special ed and who is not," Batista said.

The program, which costs $7,500 for a Web subscription, downloads and other technology, is being partially funded by the Cherry Hill Education Foundation, The foundation donated $5,000 for curriculum materials this year, including computers and software. The district is picking up the cost of staff training.

A first-grade inclusion class at the school is starting to learn language arts this term through the program. The school wants to extend Universal Design to third grade, as well.

Batista, who also teaches Spanish, is so impressed with the program that she is writing her doctoral thesis in teacher leadership on utilizing Universal Design with foreign languages. For the math program, she created an online learning portal accessible by students -- and parents -- at school or at home for reinforcement. She also developed animated PowerPoint presentations that can be viewed on iPods. Using an iPod and earbuds, each student can communicate with a teacher individually.

"We can restate a question to a child without the teacher hovering over him. I want special needs students to think they are like everybody else," she said.

Every worksheet and test has been modified to become more colorful and less intimidating. Tests use fewer words and have one question per page.

Regardless of ability, all students get the same test.

"The integrity of the test is not compromised. What we added helps everyone," Batista said. Rising test scores throughout the year among both typically developing and special needs children bear that out.

"As with architecture, I don't need to be in a wheelchair to use a ramp. This curriculum helps everyone, not just those for whom it was intended," she said.

Batista often uses a light blue background because research indicates it is easiest on the eyes. She uses yellow to highlight important terms because it is the first color the eye goes to, she said. The curriculum allows daily assessments, making it easy to tell when someone hasn't mastered a concept.

Second-grade teacher Kimberly Redfearn and her special education co-teacher, Renee Johnson, said their 16 students -- nine who are typically developing, five with special needs, one at-risk, and one whose second language is English -- look forward to math every day now.

"I've seen a tremendous difference. You wouldn't be able to pick out who's classified," Johnson said.

"The small-group arrangement and the technology pieces allow for acceleration as well as remediation. Kids who came in at a gifted level can grow, too," she said.

Charlie Hess, 7, used words such as "awesome" and "spectacular" to describe the program. "I like it, especially the laptops. They help me understand certain things better. Every time we finish a group of problems, it says "You mastered it!' And we get a medal," he said.

While one group learned about tens using tactile, three-dimensional colored squares, another was reinforcing the concept by playing the "Go Fish" card game.

"This program is good because you get to learn and you get challenged by different games. You really work your brain, and it makes math fun," card player Mollie Ward, 8, said.

Added Caylin Payne, 7, "You learn more, and it helps you on tests. I feel more comfortable with math now."

Said Redfearn, "Every child is learning in a different way. Some need to touch and visualize what they are learning. We keep regrouping so no one feels singled out. We try to get them to self-assess -- and to understand that it's not a bad thing if they don't understand everything."