Here are excerpts from a paragraph in a recent column I wrote about my growing up in Johnson County in the 1950s. It was factually correct but clumsily written, so it was widely misinterpreted.
“This may sound like an odd fond memory, but I do recall with some nostalgia being in a classroom at Porter School (now a park) with 40 or more kids. How could anything get taught, when today’s elementary school teachers will tell you that 24 kids should be the maximum, and 15 kids per classroom is ideal? …Of course, unlike today, the special-needs children were segregated to their own room down the hall, making it far easier for a teacher to handle more children.”
Some took this to mean I am nostalgic for the days when special-needs kids were segregated and that I was promoting that system. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
It is accurate to say, according to Shawnee Mission Superintendent Gene Johnson, that “the lower the class size, the more manageable it is for the teacher to work with the variety of levels of all students in his or her classroom.”
So, yes, I stand by the fact that the larger classrooms I experienced would not be workable today. And thank goodness, the classroom sizes are much smaller.
When I was in school, students with severe disabilities were likely served in state schools or institutionalized in state hospitals. For example, there was the Kansas School for the Deaf, established in 1861, and the Kansas School for the Blind, established in 1867.
Students with severe disabilities prior to 1974 were not enrolled in mass in public schools across the country. According to Deb Meyer, director of special education services in the Shawnee Mission School District, there were no federally mandated special education services provided until 1974.
Students who needed speech or very minor services were served in schools (but were possibly often in rooms down the hall), but students with a variety of disabilities were often not enrolled in public schools.
Thankfully, since that law was passed, augmented by laws in 1997 and 2004, today, every child with a disability has the right to attend public schools. Virtually no segregation for disabilities exists, except for those who have cognitive or intellectual disabilities or multiple disabilities that require more specifically functional classrooms.
The law is very specific. Students with special needs must meet the same high state standards as those without disabilities. Highly qualified teachers in core subjects must provide the same mainstream teaching environment to students with special needs. Students with special needs are required to have the same proficiency and to take the same assessment test. There is also to be a focus on making students with special needs college or career ready.
This may mean, for example, that if a video presentation is given to a class where a student is visually impaired, that an auditory presentation will be given to that student separately.
It means, for example, that students in wheelchairs will have access to elevators, or if those are not available, the school will bring services to them, such as moving core subjects to the main floor.
According to Meyer, approximately 10 percent of the students in Shawnee Mission are students with special needs. The most predominant disabilities are speech and learning disabilities.
So, what is the impact of this mainstreaming virtually all of the special-needs students?
According to Meyer, research has indicated when students with disabilities are integrated into general education settings, their test scores increase, as do the scores of the general population.
So, no, neither I nor anyone who knows the facts would ever want to return to the days of segregation based on disabilities.
Those days were as backward as any segregation of students, for any reason.
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