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Calls for more inclusion come as school budget cuts deepen in Marblehead

Wicked Local North - 1/17/2019

Jan. 16--Kate Bailey Roeser hopes more than anything that her 9-year-old son, who has autism, will be able to return to Marblehead schools in a few years.

"Absolutely. We want him back in the district," she said. "He really would benefit from being with his neurotypical peers. I hope the district can make strides towards inclusion."

Bailey Roeser had to move her son, whom she asked not to identify, out of the ACCESS special education program at the Glover School last May, when it became clear the class wasn't meeting his needs. The boy, who is in second grade, now attends the Hopeful Journeys School in Beverly.

Bailey Roeser was one of many parents, teachers, and community leaders who came to hear inclusion expert and consultant Dr. Maura Hart on Jan. 9 at Marblehead High School. Hart is a strong proponent of educating special needs kids in general education classrooms, saying it not only benefits all students but saves money, too.

"Inclusion education is absolutely doable," Hart said. "Thirty years of research shows we can include kids with the most significant disabilities. The goal should be to include 100 percent of children in gen ed classrooms."

Inclusion and Budgets

The presentation, sponsored by SEPAC, Marblehead'sSpecial Education Parent Advisory Council, was planned many months ago but turned out to be quite timely as the School Committee struggles to cover a huge deficit in the special ed out-of-district budget. Out-of-district expenses cover children whose needs can't be met in Marblehead schools and need to be sent to schools and programs out of town.

Out-of-district costs jumped more than $800,000 this year to $3,787,411. After deep budget cuts impacting everything from textbooks to staff, the School Committee reduced the deficit to $531,411 as of Jan. 10. More cuts are expected.

SEPAC co-chair Steve Alexander says inclusion can help.

"Inclusion takes work, but the payoff is huge," he said. "It is cheaper than out-of-district placements and has better student outcomes."

According to SEPAC's interpretation of district data, 64 percent of IEP students in grades K-12 are in full inclusion. Forty-four students are being sent out of district.

All students benefit when children with special needs are part of classroom communities, according to Hart.

"Special needs kids can be active community members, they benefit socially and emotionally," she said. "They tend to do better in reading and math. For typical kids, we see that they also make greater progress in reading and math. They actually have increased academic achievement."

Inclusion 1-2-3s

The key, Hart emphasized, is having a commitment to inclusion from the top down -- from administrators, principals, teachers, and parents. It also takes a shift in approach and a lot of support for teachers.

"We need more professional development in evidence-based practices so teachers grow and learn how to support the needs of all students," Hart said. In addition to training, she recommended co-teaching, with one general educator and one special educator in classrooms to support all students.

"You look at all your resources and maybe shuffle them around and use them differently. You're not adding to you budget, you're thinking outside the box," she said.

Hart recommended three first steps to bringing more inclusion to any district.

* Visioning. Get input from parents, teachers, and the community to define the ideal school.

* Set up standard operating procedures, with leadership teams and communication protocols.

* Start small, perhaps in a single classroom, or at an elementary school.

Becoming a more inclusive district typically takes three to five years, Hart said.

Marblehead Student Services Director Bob Bellucci declined to answer questions about special ed student numbers or budget figures, but did say in an email, "Marblehead has been doing full and partial inclusion for a number of years but it was interesting to hear her (Hart's) presentation and to further educate people regarding the benefits of inclusion."

Alexander would like to see more. SEPAC wants the district to initiate what Alexander calls an "Inclusion Project Team" to look at current practices in grades K-12.

"Before changing anything, it's important to know where we are, what is happening with inclusion in each grade and school," he said. "What's is working well and what isn't? The project team can also visit surrounding districts to see first-hand what other schools are doing."

But the most important thing, Alexander maintains, is to get started.

"SEPAC has done some of the preliminary work, but to be successful, it must be a district-supported effort with input from all involved," he said.

Bailey Roeser says she hopes inclusion in Marblehead improves enough that she can feel comfortable returning her son to town schools by the 5th grade.

"He's just the brightest light and I think it's a shame that his community doesn't get to see him every day," she said.

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(c)2019 Wicked Local North, Danvers, Mass.

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