Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009 | The kindergartner kicked and bit his classmates. He ran around the room, screaming and hitting. His teacher, Melissa Wood, struggled to subdue him and get through the daily lessons at Sandburg Elementary.

Educators believed a form of autism might underlie his behaviors and Wood wanted to get a trained assistant to help him. Her principal agreed. But proving to their superiors at San Diego Unified that the boy needed extra attention took months of paperwork and documentation while the tantrums and violence continued.

“I had parents getting in my face and yelling at me,” Wood said. One mother came to the classroom with a camera to photograph the assaults, and later pulled her child from the school. “I tried to tell them I was doing the best I could.”

Months later the school district agreed that an aide was needed. With a trained assistant regularly at his side, the boy has calmed down and class is no longer an ordeal.

But the episode has alarmed Sandburg Elementary teachers who are trying to include more and more students with disabilities in mainstream classes, a sea change that echoes the wider reforms planned for San Diego Unified over the next two and a half years. Their successes and concerns are a microcosm of what awaits the school district as it embarks on a massive reform of special education that has thus far remained abstract to many educators on the ground.

Including students with disabilities in ordinary classes has been a challenging but largely positive transition at the Mira Mesa school, which has a handful of students diagnosed as “emotionally disturbed,” many of them from a nearby facility for abused and neglected youth. Sandburg eliminated a separate, smaller classroom for students with disabilities and instead placed them in typical classrooms alongside their non-disabled peers.

The teachers and aides who once ministered solely to disabled students in a separate class now cycle from room to room, helping teachers give extra support and attention to students who need it, whether or not they have disabilities. Many are thriving and learning to socialize and one has even shed the “emotionally disturbed” label.

“Now he doesn’t get as upset at other children,” said Katie Garcia, whose son Spencer was once taught in a separate class. “He is doing a lot better.”

But Sandburg staffers caution that it depends heavily on support from aides and extra teachers — support that they sometimes have to fight for. And it may not work for all children, creating a new dilemma of how to serve children who need intense, separate services after those same services have been scattered to different classes.

“I’m not sure this would work well for all children,” said Sherry Downen, a behavioral technician at Sandburg. “But for some of them it is lifesaving.”

The phenomenon is called mainstreaming or inclusion. Research shows that students with disabilities fare best both academically and socially when included in activities and classes with other, nondisabled students. Federal law mandates that students with disabilities be placed in the “least restrictive” environment possible that can meet their unique needs. If they can learn in ordinary classes, the law indicates they should.

San Diego Unified has long fallen short of that mark. Advocates complain that students with disabilities are often segregated unnecessarily into separate classes or even separate schools, preventing them from accessing the same curriculum as their peers without disabilities and isolating them socially. Some schools have turned away students with disabilities to be bused to other schools with specialized programs.

The result is that some schools act as magnets for students with specific disabilities where resources are clustered together and buses can convene. Perkins Elementary in Barrio Logan, for instance, buses in dozens of students with learning disabilities or emotional disturbance to spend at least part of the day in separate classrooms with their own teachers and assistants and a psychologist who specializes in emotional disturbance. Its principal, Fernando Hernandez, said he once spent half of his time juggling the needs of less than a dozen students, but now their needs are understood, their problems routine.

Educators say the current system enjoys an economy of scale. Reformers complain that it is unfair to families who deserve the same options as any others. Even schools such as Perkins now turn some students away; Hernandez said his school currently cannot serve neighborhood children who have other disabilities such as Down syndrome or autism.

San Diego Unified is trying to change that. Years ago it brought in a nationally renowned expert to analyze the special education system; now parents and staffers are translating the expert findings into a new plan to be unrolled over the next two and a half years. They hammered out goals for decreasing the percentages of disabled students who spent most of their time in separate classrooms and upping math and reading scores. It has spent roughly $250,000 to train thousands of employees facing the change.

Advocates are largely supportive of the plan and enthusiastic about its ideals of inclusion. But the exact mechanics of the reforms are still unclear. Some schools have pushed ahead and included more students. Others are still waiting for direction.

Staffers say that it will not mean eliminating all separate classes, as some parents had feared. Nor will it mean that every child will go to their neighborhood school or that every child will be mainstreamed. Those decisions will be made by the teams of educators and parents who create individual plans for each student with disabilities. Leaders describe it as largely a cultural change — an elusive thing to explain to parents who want to know exactly what will happen to their child or their school.

The change began this year when many San Diego Unified schools scrapped the old categories they used to indicate what kind of services each student would get. Those categories traditionally dictated what kind of classes or services a student would get — classes that sometimes only existed at designated schools. Now schools are supposed to tailor their programs to students’ needs.

Many teachers remain deeply skeptical of the mainstreaming push. The looming threat of budget cuts makes many uneasy whether the training and assistance that San Diego Unified is promising will pan out, despite an expected influx of federal stimulus money for special education. The teachers union is wary of seeing workloads get heavier. And some teachers have seen mainstreaming done so poorly that they are reluctant to see it expanded at all.

“Regular education teachers have no idea about any disabilities or what to do,” said Jenna Sleichter, who specializes in teaching students with autism at Golden Hill Elementary. “My best friend is a bilingual teacher with a master’s degree and she keeps asking me, ‘Jenny, what do I do?’”

Once a week Sleichter helps a student, Frida Martinez, up the stairs to a classroom with dozens of other students without disabilities. Fifth graders sit at their desks in a room papered with posters of the skeletal and muscular systems. On a recent Wednesday the students were silently grading their vocabulary tests while Martinez, who has moderate autism and cannot read, ran her finger along the text of a picture book given to her by an assistant. There was little movement in the classroom, no interaction, and no discussion.

It was a sharp contrast to Sleichter’s classroom, where eight students rotated between color-coded stations to write their names, work on the computer, or practice basic skills such as brushing their teeth. Two trained assistants helped Sleichter guide the children. One quieted a boy with an afternoon tantrum; another realized that a boy had soiled his pants and handled the cleanup and the phone call home.

“Frida’s mom wants her to learn to interact with other people,” Sleichter said as she left the little girl and started walking back downstairs. “That doesn’t happen here.”

Sandburg teachers are still optimistic about mainstreaming. But if it takes months to get extra help — as it did for Wood and her students this year — schools may be discouraged from taking the leap. They still worry about what to do if a new student sorely needs the separate, smaller classes that Sandburg abolished.

“That would be the tricky part,” said Mike Williams, a Sandburg special education teacher. “We don’t really know what we would do.” He paused. “We would just have to find a way to meet their needs.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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