Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cleveland may hire hundreds of special ed teachers to comply with inclusion classroom rules

From The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The Cleveland schools may have to hire dozens, even hundreds, of additional special-education teachers - if an arbitrator's decision is followed to the letter.

By union contract, "inclusion" classrooms, which mix children with disabilities and other students, must have both a regular teacher and special-education teacher present full time, arbitrator Donald Pearson ruled last month. The district does some of that but more often removes children with disabilities from different classrooms and sends them to a central location for extra help.

The ruling, if strictly applied, would force the financially beleaguered district to hire up to six teachers per school, according to a teachers union estimate. The decision grew out of a complaint filed by a third-grade, general-education teacher.

Talks on how to comply with the ruling began last week. Teachers union President David Quolke would not disclose details but indicated that a compromise is possible.

"We want to work collaboratively," he said. "We want a workable solution."

Special education places heavy demands on the Cleveland schools.

More than 20 percent of the nearly 50,000 students are considered to be disabled, and a fourth of the 3,884 teachers are in special education. Still, many inclusion classes have more than the maximum number of special-education students - three in elementary schools, four in high schools - set by the union contract.

Federal law requires schools to place children with disabilities in general-education classrooms, if possible. Advocates say inclusion spares such students from being isolated and stigmatized, and it ensures that they receive the same quality of instruction as other children.

Cleveland Legal Aid lawyer Jennifer Martinez Atzberger helps needy families argue for special-education services. She sympathizes with the district's financial plight but says pulling children out of class and sending them to work with another teacher can violate the spirit of inclusion.

"It defeats the purpose of having them in the general-education classroom," Atzberger said "It singles them out as being different."

Chief Academic Officer Eric Gordon defended the strategy. He said the district chooses the option not to save money, but because it is part of the "individual education plan" developed by a school and a child's parents.

"IEPs can't be dictated by economics," he said. "There are lots of court cases that school districts have lost when they tried to make it about economics."

"Co-teaching," as the pairing of general- and special-education teachers is known, is gaining popularity across the country, said Marilyn Friend, head of the Department of Specialized Education Services at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Pulling students out of class can cause them to miss instruction on which all the students will be tested, Friend said. The teacher tandems are better able to spot who's struggling, and they have more options for grouping students, she said.

"You put the two of them together, and you get instruction that cannot be matched when it's done well," Friend said.