Newberry Elementary unique in embracing special kids

Newberry Elementary unique in embracing special kids

Erin Jester

Newberry Elementary School is getting national attention for something Principal Lacy Redd views as a simple concept: inclusion.

The school is one of six in the nation to be selected as models of inclusive education, meaning all of its special-needs students take classes with non-disabled students instead of being put into separate special-education programs.

With the help of a handful of special-education professionals and some assistive software, Redd said, “now they can do the exact same curriculum, with the same materials.”

Newberry will be part of the University of Kansas’ School-wide Integrated Framework for Transformation initiative, or SWIFT for short.

Researchers from KU’s SWIFT Center will spend five years working with the schools and producing a study on the most effective inclusionary practices.

Newberry Elementary will receive $16,000 to offset the cost of going through the program, although Redd said she’s not sure yet what or how much those costs will be.

Directors from the program will visit Newberry later this month to flesh out the details.

About 65 of the 510 Newberry Elementary students have disabilities, Redd said. An inclusion class typically will have three to six special-needs children.

Redd said she expects the SWIFT study will attract more families to Newberry. Students come from all over Gainesville for the inclusion program, and some come from neighboring counties, she said.

“Many parents want their children (with special needs) to be in a regular classroom with regular children,” she said.

Redd founded the inclusion program at Newberry Elementary seven years ago.

Previously, special-needs children spent part of their school week in dedicated “resource rooms” with ESE teachers, separate from the general education students.

Redd said she felt her special-needs students were missing out on grade-level instruction.

In Florida, students with disabilities are expected to take — and pass — the FCAT. A little better than a third of those students pass, while 70-80 percent of Newberry’s general education students pass, she said.

By bringing all of the students together, Redd said she hoped to raise expectations and improve learning for both special-needs and general education students.

The result, as she said she has seen over time, is that special-needs students have improved behavior, social development and learning outcomes. Likewise, general education students have an improved understanding of diversity and accept their special-needs peers easily.

“I believe it benefits all the kids,” she said.

In a 100 percent inclusion program like Newberry’s, all students go to the same classes together. Rather than pulling out special-needs children to separate classrooms when they require assistance, helpers come into the regular classroom.

Newberry’s staff includes several exceptional student education, or ESE, teachers, and seven paraprofessionals who move around classrooms and help all students.

Newberry Elementary is the only school in Alachua County with a 100 percent inclusion program, said Regina Currens, a district inclusion specialist.

In Alachua County, 66 percent of disabled students spend at least 80 percent of their school week in general education classes with non-disabled students. The state average is 68 percent of disabled students.

In other schools, Currens said, a student with a disability might spend most of the day in a regular classroom but go to a resource room with an ESE teacher for a subject the student has difficulty with, such as reading or math. Other students might need a very small, controlled environment with special instruction.

Schools tend to make decisions about inclusion based on each student’s specific needs, Currens said.

Much of the time, Redd said, you can’t tell who the special-needs students are just by looking into a classroom.

“That’s what a true inclusion class should be,” she said.

One of those students is fourth-grader Katie Ling.

Katie, 10, has trouble with auditory processing and gets fatigued easily. She has been in regular classes at Newberry since kindergarten.

“It takes her awhile to get things, but once she gets it, she gets it,” said her mother, Susan Ling, an art teacher at Newberry.

Participating in science class Wednesday, Katie seemed exactly the same as everyone else. She listened to the teacher’s instructions, stretching a piece of a plastic bag, then a rubber band to compare their elasticity.

Part of the time, she doesn’t need help from the paraprofessional who floats around the classroom, assisting other special-needs students. She needs help only for reading and math, when she can use a computer to type instead of writing assignments by hand.

Ling said being included in regular classes at Newberry has helped with Katie’s behavior and social skills. Katie mimics the behavior of her non-disabled classmates.

“She’s very successful watching other students,” Ling said.

General education students learn from their special-needs peers, too.

First-grader Elijah Andrews is one of the only students to have a dedicated professional present at all times: his sign language interpreter, Peggy Lacasse.

Elijah has autism and is hearing impaired, which would make it difficult for his peers to communicate with him in another setting, said first-grade teacher Morgan Martin.

But at Newberry, having a sign language interpreter in the classroom means everyone else is learning how to sign, too. When Martin’s students learn a vocabulary word in written English, they also learn it in sign language.

“He taught us probably more than we’ve taught him this year,” Martin said of Elijah.

ESE teacher Teri Jones has been at Newberry one year longer than the inclusion program. She said special-needs children who are included are much better at rising to expectations and meeting their potential than their peers who are kept only with other special-needs children.

Most people would be amazed at what her students can accomplish, Jones said. You just have to give them a chance.

“You have to expect that they can do it,” she said. “And you have to believe in kids.”