(A Medford mom and champion for equity and inclusion, Melanie has fought against the system for the rights of her daughter. Today she talks about her heartbreaking decision to move Grace to a more restrictive setting because of the inability of the public school system to accommodate her needs. With a masters degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education — Melanie has a lot of access and agency — but has still struggled with getting what her daughter needs from our public education system. Read her full story here.)
By Melanie Perkins McLaughlin
This is a significant week for our daughter and our family as we made the difficult decision to remove Grace from her community public school (where we have advocated for meaningful inclusion since preschool) and place her in a more restrictive setting.
Many of you may be familiar with The Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Created in 1975 (as the Education for all Handicapped Children Act) the law was established to allow children with disabilities to attend public school (!) and receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). LRE is further defined as the same setting in which the child would be educated if they did not have a disability.
Students with disabilities are expected (by federal law) to be placed in LRE first with all appropriate supports and services and only removed when the nature or severity of the disability is such that they cannot make meaningful progress in the less restrictive setting.
The reality is most of our school systems are not equipped to meaningfully educate children with disabilities in the least restrictive environments. When we have classrooms that are taught to achieve highest outcomes on MCAS scores instead of valuing diversity in learning it is no wonder students with disabilities are among the lowest performing subgroups in the accountability data.
When we have whole class instruction it is not surprising that nearly 50 percent of students with disabilities don’t graduate with a high school diploma. When our administrators and staff are trained in segregated silos (General vs Special Ed) it is no surprise our children are segregated. When there is not adequate training of staff in the implementation of Universal Design for Learning, Personalized Instruction and Positive Behavior Supports it is no surprise students who are “included” (but not meaningfully) are not successful.
When there is a culture and mindset that in order to be in a general education classroom a student must be performing at grade level it is no surprise data shows students with disabilities don’t have access to grade level curriculum.
When there is a long-held belief that special education is a place and not a service, it is not surprising that our children are sent to “special classrooms”. It is not surprising children with disabilities educated in substantially segregated settings are academically behind their disabled peers educated in inclusive settings.
The exclusion of children with disabilities is a systemic issue – especially for students with intellectual disabilities. I regularly advocate for families whose children are referred right from early intervention or preschool into segregated classrooms in MA public schools. This practice is not only illegal it is immoral.
We will continue to advocate for inclusive public schools and for the rights of all children to receive a public education that is diverse, equitable and inclusive. And we will raise Gracie to do the same.
Additionally, we are grateful for educational communities, teachers and advocates that value children with disabilities and the enrichment they bring to the world. We have a lot of work to do in the public arena and hope you will join us in our efforts.