Students in Franklin’s Special Education program are not sure anyone knows where their classrooms are. “Dude, they don’t even know I’m down here,” says a student in the Special Education program. This echoes the concerns of his teachers and peers, and references the isolated nature of Franklin’s Intensive Skills Center. Does this lack of awareness impact Franklin’s goals of inclusion for Special Education students?
In schools, inclusion is the idea that everyone, regardless of background or ability, should be given equitable access to learning and support. This is supported by The Salamanca Statement, the product of the World Conference on Special Needs Education of 1994, held in Salamanca, Spain, in which representatives from 92 governments and 25 international organizations called for inclusive schools to be endorsed internationally. The Salamanca Statement declares that “every child has a fundamental right to education, and must be given the opportunity to achieve and maintain an acceptable level of learning,” and that “those with special educational needs must have access to regular schools which should accommodate them.” The aim of inclusive education is for each student to participate the best they can with the appropriate level of support, and be involved in an environment that values them and affords them success. Inclusion, specifically for students receiving special education services, is allowing them to learn in the least restrictive environment possible. This means they should be amongst their peers in general education classes whenever possible.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, all children with disabilities are guaranteed the right to a free and appropriate education. However, inclusivity in an educational community should be a goal, whether or not federal law mandates it. Inclusion is directly aligned with Franklin’s values as a community. “I definitely think [inclusion] is within [Franklin’s] values of respecting the individual and respecting the learning needs of individual students,” says Scott Burns, vice principal and the supervising administrator for the Special Education program at Franklin. “It’s helpful for everyone to be involved with everyone else.”
At this moment in time, inclusivity is a theme in the issues we’re talking about, like inclusivity through the lens of race, gender, and sexual orientation. This theme is expressed both in the world and in Franklin, for example, through Franklin Talks. Inclusivity lends itself to a greater discourse regarding diversity in all settings. Awareness and inclusivity go hand in hand; you can’t include something you’re unaware of. “Being knowledgeable, just so you have a base understanding of what Special Education services look like… is really key to start answering whether or not [you] feel students receiving services are included,” says Burns.
“I think having a disability can be very othering. When our students are getting to participate with everyone else, like in Mamma Mia this year, and in dance, and with the coffee cart, it has a big impact on their self-esteem,” says Tyler Riggs, a teacher in Franklin’s Intensive Skills Center (ISC). Riggs and Alexis Atwood, another ISC teacher, agree that staff and administrators at Franklin are great at welcoming and including their students who are in the ISC. The teachers state some of the ways the school’s staff supports ISC students: The students go to lunch 15-20 minutes early to avoid the lunch rush, and during tutorial and assemblies Ms. Frazee lets students use the library as a quieter space to work with paraeducators. The campus security associates greet students and help them when they need support in the hallways. Rob Carron, the head custodian at Franklin, knows ISC students by name. They schedule meetings with Mr. Frazier to talk about things they’re passionate about, Riggs and Atwood tell me.
Special Education refers to a spectrum of services, ranging from accommodations, to emotional/behavioral/social support, to modified curriculum. These tiers mean that some special education students spend all or most of their classes in a general education (GEN ED) setting and some students take the majority of their school days in a specialized classroom, like the Intensive Skills Center. Franklin’s website describes ISC as a “self-contained community-based program” where students “receive instruction in areas designated in their IEP as well as support with their mainstream classes.” This classroom is in the SS basement of Franklin. Its almost-above-ground-level windows look out onto the athletic roundabout. Buses that provide transportation for students are visible from the classroom.
The students in Special Education who I interviewed enjoyed the location of the classroom, stating the benefit of it being quiet. “It makes sense… [that it’s] not right in the middle—if a kid throws a fit,” says one student interviewed. One student says their favorite part of the classroom is doing crafts and activities together. The classrooms have ADA-accessible bathrooms with showers, as well as full kitchens, which support students in learning life skills.
The location is not without its drawbacks; teachers and students alike expressed concerns about accessibility and visibility. “In the future, there may be mobility concerns with students,” Atwood says. “The classes are smaller, [this could be] challenging for students with mobility needs.” As for visibility concerns, Atwood tells me that often people are unaware of the SPED classroom being there. Sometimes, she says, Gen Ed teachers don’t even know who teaches there. This trend was also shown in the results of a brief student survey, in which less than half of the respondents knew where the classroom was, with only 13.6% having ever been. Of those I spoke to, around half of the students in SPED said they didn’t think other students knew where they were. “Being in the corner, away from everyone else, impacts them,” says Riggs.
A concern is that the isolated nature of the classroom limits interaction between students who are in special education and those who are not. The ISC classroom is physically included in Franklin by its placement in the same building, however, the limited visibility it offers evokes concerns about the interaction it may allow for students. “Where students are has an effect on their feeling included,” says Burns, “for good or not, [where they’re located] has an impact on their experience.” To this end, Burns suggests that relocation of the classroom is being discussed.
Atwood wishes some of the classes taught in the ISC could be taught in the main halls. For example, a math class being taught around other math classes, instead of in the basement. She says that’s a way SPED students could be included in the student body. Her students echo that wish, and tell me they’d feel more included if their class was on the ground floor, or in the center of the school.
Atwood describes what student inclusion means to her as “students being fully seen, able to go to class with their needs being met, and being included in extracurriculars.” Those I talked to who participated in Gen Ed elective classes (ranging from art, to photography, to choir) expressed feeling included. At the same time, students also wish they were more included in sports, such as track, where ISC teachers say coaches may not have experience working with kids in Special Education and thus limits their ability to participate.
It’s not the sole responsibility of those students to assimilate or include themselves with the General Education population, but also the job of others to actively work to include them. Students say they would feel more included if people they didn’t know said hi to them.
While most of the SPED students I interviewed felt included, only 25% of their Gen Ed peers felt students receiving special education services were included in Franklin’s community. Looking at it this way, inclusion becomes multi-faceted, affected both by who is included and who is including them. If the people doing the including don’t feel Special Educational students are included, there is clearly more work to be done. Burns describes how it’s the responsibility of everyone— students, teachers, administrators—to work on inclusion. “It’s our entire community’s job.”
Like other conversations regarding diversity, this is a complicated topic. It requires perspective and thought. At least that’s what I’ve come to believe, throughout learning about inclusion and SPED for this article. It’s hard, if not impossible, to discuss everything inclusion is about in a single article. If inclusion simply counts as the placement of a classroom in the same building as other classrooms, Franklin’s achieved it. However, inclusion is about something more, a continued commitment to providing belonging for all students. Within the systems and supports we have at Franklin, Scott Burns says he feels Special Education students are included, but that there are always opportunities for growth. “I hope we continue to look at whether or not students feel included in the model [and] we continue to make adjustments.”
Inclusion at Franklin is more than just an academic program or a physical space. When I asked Tyler Riggs if there was anything else I should know about Special Education at Franklin, he said, “Our students are great. They love music, they love to dance, they love cooking, and being in a space with each other. They love this community, and we want them to be included.”