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While shopping in a mall recently Jennifer Wilson happened to run into one of her students, who introduced her to his mother as "my science teacher." Wilson is professionally certified as an education specialist, a special-education teacher, but she could not have been happier about the introduction.

She is a member of the faculty at Concord High School -- both special-ed and conventional teachers -- who are committed to blurring the line between regular and special-ed students to the extent that they are indistinguishable one from the other. As the young man in the mall demonstrated, pretty much as a matter of course, that is happening faster than many parents, teachers and other observers elsewhere think possible.

There are no longer any hyphenated students at Concord -- "just Concord students," said principal Mark Holodick.

He admits to having been "somewhat reluctant" when, soon after becoming principal in 2005, Susan Krikelis approached him with what seemed like a revolutionary idea: Instead of special-ed teachers conducting their own classes, they would operate with no set schedules 'co-teaching' classes into which special-ed students were integrated.

He agreed, however, to give it a try and now the arrangement is the norm. "I support both the [regular-education] teacher and the student without being in each class every day," Krikelis said.

That has  the effect of bringing special education a full 180 from where, not too long ago, virtually everyone thought it should be.

After federal law in 1975 declared that youngsters with disabilities were entitled to and should receive public-school educations, school districts all over the country scrambled to create niches for them. Until a little over a decade ago, the Brandywine district operated an 'intensive learning center' in the building which now houses Springer Middle School. After it was closed in 1994, special-ed students were dispersed among district schools, but were taught in isolated classrooms. They, in effect, attended a 'school within a school' and generally had limited contact with their peers on conventional learning tracks.

Ann Hilkert, the district's director of pupil services, said there can be no justification for such segregation.

"Students with disabilities have a right to be in a [conventional] classroom. They have a right to services to level the playing field. They don't have to earn those rights," she said. The only question, she added, is whether they can be served in a conventional classroom.

At Concord, all but eight of 112 special-ed students are now served in conventional classrooms. Those eight are in the community-based life-skills program. But they, too, are considered full-fledged Concord students and have access to extra-curricular and other school activities.

Hilkert said Concord is a leader, in both the state and the region, in providing inclusive education. She credits that to a complete commitment by the school's staff and said the district administration is committed to fostering comparable inclusion in its other schools.

Holodick said that Concord's successful implementation is the result of every staff member having accepted as a basic premise that they are "responsible for every student who comes through the door."

The co-teaching arrangement, Hilkert said, dispels what otherwise might be a tendency among regular-education teachers to be unsure of their ability to instruct special-ed students. "They aren't caught in that cycle of fear. They don't have to say they were trained to work with students with disabilities," she said.

Counterpart to that among special-education teachers is that their primary training has been in strategies and methods rather than in getting across the content of the range of courses.

There is no need to water down course content or slow down the pace of instruction because the special-ed teacher provides what support a student needs to keep pace, she explained. At the same time, the students "are getting access to the same education their peers are."

The arrangement also fosters acceptance by the other students, said Beth Mounir, a coordinator of pupil services.

Special-ed students are capable of the same academic achievements as other students, Hilkert said. "Research as shown that 65% of the learning-disabled have normal to above-normal intelligence." Integrating them into a regular-education program, in itself, raises expectations and raising expectations stimulates achievement, she explained.

"We're getting out of the tracking business which lowers expectations," she added. "We're closing the achievement gap."

The federal No Child Left Behind Act holds special-ed students to the same standards as regular students. Special education, in fact, is one of the 'cells' by which it measures progress.

Wilson said an companion benefit to what is happening in Concord classrooms is showing up in voluntary involvement in other aspects of student life. "It's not unusual for [special-ed students] to be in the band or on sports teams to to be seen at dances. That didn't happen very often  in the past," she said.

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Posted on December 28, 2007

2007. All rights reserved.