Boston falls short on ‘inclusion’ classrooms

District not meeting standards for special education

BOSTON TEACHERS ARE passionate about fulfilling the promise of every child, and that’s why we support robust inclusion programs. Inclusion means that every student has an equal opportunity to learn, no matter his or her skills, abilities or learning styles.

It’s not just an admirable goal, or a proposed pathway; it’s the law. Our Commonwealth’s special education law requires that students be taught in the least restrictive environment possible. The law requires a per-pupil allocation to serve students with special needs.

But on the ground, in schools across the city, this is often not the case. That’s because the dollars that should be earmarked for students with special needs are not following the students into the general education classroom. In many cases there is just one teacher in a room of students with a wide variety of physical, emotional, medical, and learning disabilities.

Our teachers are urged to get two or three or four certifications to serve these incredibly diverse classrooms. But no matter how many certifications a teacher gains, it is impossible to simultaneously teach all these different groups of students, at the same time, without proper staffing.

The Boston Teachers Union conducted an extensive survey of Boston educators to gather their views on inclusion. We found that, overwhelmingly, teachers believed in inclusion and were committed to nurturing the potential of every student. But teachers often recounted examples of ways the status quo is failing our students and our communities. One general education teacher wrote:

“Inclusion does not work well when a classroom contains six inclusion students with diverse and in-depth needs, in addition to general education students with many social emotional needs in situations where a paraprofessional cannot sufficiently support [them]. Often, an inclusion teacher is responsible for serving as a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and an ESL teacher. This is not fair to students.”

Time and again, our teachers tell us that, ideally, they would have two certified teachers and one paraprofessional in the classroom to manage the complex array of students’ special needs. At the minimum, there must be two fully certified teachers in a classroom to ensure every student has an equal opportunity to learn.

This model is in use at some Boston schools, and it’s working. One teacher described her experience this way:

“I currently co-teach with another very qualified and dedicated teacher in an inclusion classroom. Students with and without special needs have benefited enormously from the co-teaching model. Together, we’ve been able to create personalized plans for our students with autism, use different co-teaching strategies to ensure every student is progressing.”

“Inclusion done right” requires adequate funding and teaching resources. This investment offers great rewards, including better outcomes for students with and without special needs, and for schools as a whole. Robust inclusion programs positively impact learning both inside and outside the classroom. As a colleague of mine put it:

Meet the Author
“I see inclusion working well whenever I watch my students with special needs working alongside and/or with their typically developing peers. I see this as an amazing opportunity for young children to learn from each other and learn how to celebrate differences.”

Teachers across Boston want every child to succeed. If Boston, as a community, really believes in equity for all children, then we must back up that belief with the funds to fully support our academic programs, teachers and, most importantly, our students. By shorting our investment in inclusion services, we are shortchanging every student — those with and those without special needs.

Alliberthe Elysee is a Boston Teachers Union member and a sheltered English immersion kindergarten inclusion teacher at the Henry L. Higginson K-2 Elementary School in Roxbury.