Updated: Jun 22, 2021
Recently, I gave an all-day workshop over Zoom to special education teacher candidates who were taking a course about teaching students with autism to fulfill a requirement for an alternate certification of their credential. During the class, I showed them a video directed by Dan Habib, a filmmaker renowned for showcasing inclusive education in action.
The short film called “Thaysa” highlighted a young autistic girl in her elementary general education classroom. It showed what was necessary for inclusive education to work in her setting, which included behavior, communication, and instructional supports provided in a class with her typically developing peers, unlike how many districts provide these supports in a separate segregated classroom.
After the film, I asked for reactions, and for the most part, they were positive. And then one teacher candidate took a different spin. They referenced that in the film, the mother of Thaysa said that she was so glad her daughter wasn’t in a classroom for students with only autism because she learned so much.
The teacher candidate, who currently teaches in a self-contained classroom for students with autism, said they disagreed with Thaysa’s mom’s opinion that her daughter would not learn as much if she was in a separate class. And that opinions like those hurt teachers who are trying to teach students with significant support needs.
So why did this teacher candidate react this way after seeing an example of authentic inclusion? I told the group that I understood the cognitive dissonance that some of them must be feeling.
But the reason I like to show the video about Thaysa is to show that inclusive education is possible and happening. Even if educators teach in a disability-specific program now, there is hope that things can change.
The bottom line is that “students in segregated self-contained classrooms [do not] get the same education as general education students in regular classrooms,” said Jacques Smith, a former middle school administrator and Board President of MCIE.
Teachers “are charged with teaching multiple subjects, you don’t have a regular Math [or ELA] teacher, and when students go to special areas they usually [are] not trained or prepared on how to work with students with disabilities,” Smith continued.
Smith recounted his days as an assistant principal before partnering with MCIE on bringing students with significant disabilities back in their neighborhood schools. “We spent a lot of our time trying to convince parents that [special education self-contained classrooms were] a good thing. A good thing but a separate thing. And it was not what the average kids in the school got.”
This mindset changed after Smith’s school started working with MCIE in what was known as the Neighborhood School Project in the early 1990s. Here is one story from that period that Smith said was the highlight of his career (paraphrased below).
A mother came in with a father, two high school boys who played football, and their younger autistic son, Chad. The two older brothers were adamantly against Chad coming to the school because they didn’t want him to be made fun of. After a lot of tears by the mother, the family decided they would try having Chad attend the school. So school started, and we had adventure after adventure. We had support teachers and classroom aides to help. And we included the students with significant disabilities to the degree to which they could, which gradually increased throughout the year. One day, a teacher grabs me and says, “you have to see this!” During the winter holiday time, the foreign language teacher (an educator who was initially resistant to the Neighborhood Schools Project) had arranged an activity where the students performed skits about Christmas holidays worldwide. The 7th graders, which Chad was a part of, had to pretend they were part of a news team. They had lights, cameras, and wreaths, and they were recording and everything. Families had brought refreshments, so it was a big deal. And Chad’s parents were there, along with his older brothers. I looked on as the first group went up, four girls and Chad. The teacher said to me, “they did it all themselves; I don’t know what is going to happen.” The girls started, and they were going on about the first city, Hamburg in Germany. One of the girls said, “Chad, will you remind the audience at home where Hamburg is on the map?” Chad repeated the word “Hamburg” and pointed to the correct position on the displayed map. Chad spoke a few more lines and wasn’t very vocal, but his teammates on the news crew prompted him through it. I looked over at the two older brothers, and I knew that they had rehearsed with Chad what he was going to say because as he was saying his lines, they were mouthing the words intently. It was clear the whole family had bought in. When it was all over, everyone applauded. Chad and the girls on the news team went over to their families. Chad came near his parents, and his brothers gave him fistbumps, and his mother, crying with happiness, hugged him tight. And tears rolling down my face, I looked at her and said, “Chad did a great job.” And she said to me, “Thank you for letting us have this opportunity; we never knew he could do this. We had no idea he could do this.”
MCIE has been partnering with school districts for decades. And through the Neighborhood School Project, Chad’s opportunity to be meaningfully included with his peers at this school became a reality. It did not just happen but is the result of careful planning led by educational visionaries and strategies that promote effective inclusive education.
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Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for MCIE, Editor-in-Chief of Think Inclusive, and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealTimVegas.