As a member of the 40 percent -- that is, the parent of a child on the special education side of an Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) class, I've often wondered what the other "half" (the 60 percent) thinks about these inclusion classes.
For those not in the know, ICT classes (formerly known as CTT, Collaborative Team Teaching) have a 40 to 60 percent ratio of children with special needs. These classes have a general education teacher and a special education teacher who jointly provide instruction to both students with and without disabilities (the 40 percent have IEPs, Individualized Education Program). I checked in with some 60 percenters in Brooklyn to find out what things look like from their vantage point.
When Lynn Melnick found out last school year that her daughter was being placed in the kindergarten inclusion class at PS 58, she was thrilled. Having just come from a pre-k class of eight kids with three teachers, Lynn feared that a class of 25 kids with only a single teacher would be too big an adjustment for her daughter.
As luck would have it, her daughter is in the ICT class again this year and is a two-time classmate with my son at PS 58, also known as The Carroll School.
Having two teachers is the selling point, if you will, to parents of children who come in from the general education side.
Megan Lappin, mom to a Gen-Ed kindergartner in an ICT class at PS 10 says, "I feel like I won the lottery. Having two teachers is great, especially when the kids are so young."
Sandra Millerstein (name changed by request), whose son was in a general education kindergarten class at a local school last year--the feared 25-students-and-one-teacher variety--says her son noticed a difference right away when he was placed in a first-grade ICT class this year.
"I asked him the first week, 'Do you notice the difference?' and he said, 'Oh, I don't have to wait around so long for help.' The other kids didn't notice any difference but he did right away," Millerstein said. "Last year I think he was always helped last because he didn't have any big problems; he just had to wait. This year he gets way more attention."
Liza Bristol (name changed by request), whose daughter was in a second-grade ICT class last year at a different Brooklyn school, feels the two teachers are necessary to deal with the inherent pandemonium she sees in these classes.
"I hate to say it, but there's lots of chaos in those kinds of classes," Bristol said. "There's a little bit of a control issue so having two teachers helped a lot."
According to Bristol, "One of the problems with ICT is you put all of the kids with behavior problems in one place and what happens is, they feed off each other. If you're around rowdy kids, your kid is going to be rowdy. So if someone's going to shout, 'It smells like popcorn!' in the middle of rug time, then someone else is going to think it's funny and they're going to have to one-up them."
One of the big problems with ICT classes is the perception of them.
"ICT is hard because it is labeled [among parents] as behavioral issues and I think the reason for that is the ones who have behavioral issues really do stand out, unfortunately," Bristol explains. "I don't know why, but I guess it's the one who screams loudest."
Melnick doesn't necessarily disagree with her.
"I think a lot of people have a leftover idea of what the 'special class' was at their school growing up, and they are afraid of the stigma, but in my experience these past two years, the IEP kids are among the brightest in the class and most of the behavioral problems come from the gen-ed side," Melnick said.
Bronwen O'Keefe agrees.
"I think most of the kids who were 'problem kids' were not the IEP kids," she says, referring to last year's kindergarten ICT class at PS 58, where her daughter was a gen-ed student. "I think the reason ICT is looked at either not favorably or with some cause for concern is lack of education. People don't understand what it is."
But that lack of understanding doesn't always come from the parents. Sometimes it's the teachers who don't quite know what to make of this classroom model.
A few weeks into the school year Millerstein found out that all of the gen-ed students were handpicked to be in the class because they were considered to be more empathetic and relatively high performers academically.
She believes this strategy was put into place as a result of some misperceptions in populating last year's ICT classes:
"I think maybe in the past they hadn't explained to the other teachers how the ICT model works," Millerstein says. "So they had gotten kids who had a lot more problems because that's what the other teachers thought were supposed to go into the class."
"They got the mix right this year," she says, adding, "they actually told us that they hadn't had such a high performing class before, on average, and the class is highly functional, a really nice cohesive group, very good at working together."
Getting the right mix of kids is more art than science, which means there's plenty of margin for error.
"I heard bad things about last year's kindergarten ICT class," says Bristol. "There was one kid who couldn't stop crying for the first two hours of every day and one particular parent said, 'You need to pull him out and get him some help because it's disrupting the class.' There were two teachers but one was always out with this particular kid. Because then you've got 21 kids with only one teacher and eight of them have some sort of special need."
Indeed, that is a problem.
"Kindergarten is always a crapshoot," says Millerstein.
And she's right. The majority of the kids are unknown to the teachers so they don't necessarily know the personalities to create a complementary mix. This is likely true of all kindergarten classes, whether they're inclusion or general education.
Are there other benefits for gen-ed students aside from having an extra adult in the room?
Absolutely, says Millerstein. Her son tells her about how he helps other kids.
"When they're at a table and they're paired with somebody, he's often helping the person next to him or helping the other kids at his table get ready for things," Millerstein says. "He's always been somewhat of a leadership example for other kids because he is relatively self-sufficient, so I think it's awesome that his teachers have been able to foster it."
Melnick has her own unique perspective on inclusion classes. "My mother works in a private school in Los Angeles that mainstreams kids with all types of developmental delays with a general ed population, so I already knew how well this works and how it builds empathy among children who don't have any learning or other developmental issues."
Bristol had some positive things to say, too. "For my daughter it was good exposure to realize, 'Hey, not everybody thinks the way I do and not everyone learns the way I do.' At the end of the day, this is the world we live in, people are different and we're going to give everyone the respect that they deserve."
This isn't the same "Special Ed" from our childhood. Sure, Jack rides the "short bus" (see, School Bus Roulette), but it's not really the "short bus" anymore. The stigma hasn't necessarily gone away, but it's certainly nowhere near as harsh. From my experience, there's much more acceptance and an air of nonchalance that surrounds special ed kids these days, and I think it's precisely because they have been integrated into the gen-ed classrooms.
I asked these moms how ICT classes were originally explained to them when they found out their child was being placed in one.
"They told us that the classroom was like any other classroom of that grade," says O'Keefe. "And the reason there are two teachers there is so that one can focus more on the gen-ed kids and one can focus more on the IEP kids, but that the curriculum is exactly the same."
Bristol says, "At our school, the way it's delivered to us is that everybody has one experience in an ICT class in their career at school. It's more like, 'This is an opportunity for kids to learn how to handle people with different behavioral issues, and work together, and it's almost like you just do your time, check that off and you're done."
A couple of the moms I interviewed feel differently. Especially Melnick who sent me this email message: "My daughter absolutely thrived in these classes. I wish she could be in one every year!!"
Note the double exclamation points, untouched by me. It seems like the 60 percent is quite often just as happy as the 40 percent.