Embracing students with disabilities

Inclusive classrooms require investment in supports and teacher training — and lead to gains for all

By Alisha Kirby

In 2020–21, 7.2 million students ages 3–21 received special education services in the United States under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — 15 percent of all public school students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

In California, 13 percent of all students received special ed services during that time period. That same year, more than 20,000 IDEA-related complaints were filed against schools throughout the country, less than half of which were resolved without a legal hearing. In California, special education-related disputes rose 85 percent from 2007 to 2017.


hile disputes may arise for myriad reasons, a common link in several recent cases is that families don’t feel their child is being included, and appropriately supported, in the general education setting with their peers.

Research has long shown the benefits of inclusion — both for special education and general education students — but putting inclusive practices into action can be challenging. Staffing shortages, teacher training issues and a severe lack of funding can all appear insurmountable to local educational agencies working to provide welcoming, rigorous and engaging inclusive learning opportunities for students with disabilities.

Despite these challenges, however, LEAs throughout California are making significant strides in shifting mindsets and supporting students with disabilities.

Some districts and counties are well into that work in terms of getting the right supports in place and getting teachers in the right frame of mind to say, ‘We are educating all students in our classroom,’ and having that be a welcoming place.”

– San Mateo COE trustee Chelsea Bonini

Some districts and counties are well into that work in terms of getting the right supports in place and getting teachers in the right frame of mind to say, ‘We are educating all students in our classroom,’ and having that be a welcoming place.”

– San Mateo COE trustee Chelsea Bonini

“There’s a movement afoot, and that takes many forms. An inclusive environment links up with the least restrictive environment (LRE) piece of IDEA, and that’s different for every student,” said San Mateo County Office of Education trustee Chelsea Bonini. “Maybe it’s because of the history of how special education has come into general education, that it’s kept separate — separate funding, separate teaching certificates, separate everything. We have to reimagine it, we have to have a shift in mindset, which is underway. Some districts and counties are well into that work in terms of getting the right supports in place and getting teachers in the right frame of mind to say, ‘We are educating all students in our classroom,’ and having that be a welcoming place.”
The law and benefits of inclusion

In 2020, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 95 percent of students with disabilities attended regular schools — a far cry from just 50 years ago when just one in five children with disabilities attended traditional schools. And as recently as the late 1980s, it was considered best practice to segregate students with disabilities from general education settings and focus on basic life and vocational skills rather than the standard academic curriculum.

Under IDEA’s LRE requirement, districts must see that these students, “to the maximum extent appropriate … are educated with children who are not disabled, and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

The LRE requirement reinforces a growing preference for the inclusion approach to special education, which prioritizes educating every child, where appropriate, in the classroom they would attend if not differently abled, and centers on bringing the support services to the child rather than moving the child to the services. Among all school-age students served under IDEA, the percentage who spend 80 percent or more of their time in general ed classes increased from 59 percent in fall 2009 to 66 percent in fall 2020.

Decades of research has linked strong inclusionary practices to higher test scores and grade point averages, stronger math and literacy skills, and more developed communication and social skills among students with disabilities. Long-term benefits include an increased likelihood of enrolling in college and graduating, finding employment and forming long-term relationships.

Some studies suggest that individualized education programs (IEPs), roadmaps created by a team including the child’s caregivers and school/district personnel for the schooling of students with disabilities, tend to be more ambitious and academically focused when children are placed in inclusive settings.

Despite improvements in recent decades, inclusive models often require resources that not all schools have access to, including funding to provide a larger staff with the appropriate training — of which there is a severe shortage nationwide — to provide individual and small-group support for students. Some research has recommended states rework teacher training to ensure all teachers, not just special-education teachers, are equipped with techniques to handle a wider range of abilities.

Fran English, director of special education at Fremont Unified School District, noted that collaboration with general education counterparts about the importance of boosting inclusion and their role is critical to improving student outcomes.

“In our district, we do a lot of training around Universal Design for Learning,” English said. “We are also implementing MTSS, Multi-Tiered System of Supports. We’re trying to support our gen ed counterparts to include our students even more in general ed. It’s not easy because a lot of general ed teachers don’t feel that they are trained in inclusion. They care about our kids but don’t always feel equipped to address their needs. I tell them all the time, ‘You’re a good teacher, it’s just a matter of working with the special ed specialist to adapt materials to meet the needs of special education students.’”

The district works collaboratively with local credentialing programs and notes that programs are focusing more on inclusive practices, English said.

Murrieta Valley USD has faced similar pushback but has been able to slowly tailor placements to help smooth the transition, explained Superintendent Ward Andrus.

“We’ve been strategic when making placements. We’ve been very purposeful in evaluating who’s receiving students ready to be mainstreamed and which programs, which schools, principals and administrative units have the capacity to navigate and support all student needs,” he said. “We haven’t just said, ‘Okay, we’ve got 30 kids that need this opportunity. We’re going to place all 30 out there.’ Instead, we’ve taken a thoughtful approach and have said, ‘We’ve got 30 kids to place. Let’s start with these four or five and place them. We pause, it’s working, then we move on to the next group.’ It’s incremental. We take the time to adjust, think and analyze systems to be more inclusive. In this process, we also look out for the safety of everyone. Using this approach allows us to adjust as needed.”

Funding has long been a challenge in providing special education services. When IDEA was enacted, Congress committed to provide up to 40 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure to pay for its expanded federal mandate. It’s yet to come close. For California, the federal share of IDEA funds equaled 7.77 percent of total funds spent in 2020–21. In fact, more was spent in state and local funds on special education services in California ($15.5 billion) than Congress appropriated for the entire nation in fiscal year 2021. This underfunding has had a major impact on LEAs’ abilities to balance annual operating budgets and maintain quality education programs and services for all children.

The state allocates most special education funding through a base rate formula. This funding is allocated to Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs), a regional consortium of school districts, charter schools and COEs that coordinate special education funding and services. Larger districts often serve as their own SELPA.

Funding is distributed to SELPAs based on total SELPA student attendance in TK–12 and a per-student base rate. Most SELPAs receive funding using the same base rate — $715 per student in 2021–22, up from $557 per student in 2019–20. The state also provides a total of $6 million ongoing Proposition 98 to run two extraordinary cost pools to reimburse SELPAs for high-cost student services and placements in non-public schools or residential centers that accommodate more extreme needs.

“No matter what the increases have been, we still don’t have adequate funding. We just sort of function at this level of semi-adequacy, in my opinion,” said San Mateo COE’s Bonini. “But the good thing is that there’s been a lot of advocacy, so board members need to keep advocating for more funding for special education because we need more.”

The Murrieta Way

LEAs throughout the state have become increasingly creative in the ways they include students with disabilities in day-to-day learning and extracurricular activities. In Murrieta Valley USD, inclusionary practices have permeated the district in such a manner that officials call it ‘The Murrieta Way.’ What started as an expansion of adaptive physical education to include peer assistance eventually led to “Unified PE” and other unified academic and extracurricular courses in which general and special education students learn together.

“The concept of co-teaching and classroom inclusion is the heart of what we’re trying to accomplish. Sports was the soft approach to launch the concept of ‘we can do these things together, and it’s okay,’” Andrus said. “We have approximately 30 sections across our district of co-taught classes. To facilitate that, we’ve had to go into our labor agreement and develop a [memorandum of understanding] with our teachers’ association. Key to our success is a willingness of our association and our teachers to try.”

Unified activities have opened countless opportunities for students with disabilities, said Murrieta Valley board member Linda Lunn. “These are students who, except for one day a year at Special Olympics, didn’t get to participate in ongoing athletics. They had no opportunity to letter, which is considered a normal part of high school life — that you could letter in something, whether it was a speech team or football or choir. Now they can letter in athletics,” she said. “When we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, this is it. It truly changes mindsets when you see what diversity, equity and inclusion in action looks like for students.”

Peer mentorship is also an important part of the district’s efforts to expand inclusionary practices. Currently, about 60 students participate in the program, through which general education students assist a special education student who couldn’t otherwise take a class without a one-on-one aide — be it dance, career pathway courses, language classes and more.

“Outwardly, many understand the benefits to special needs students. What many don’t see are the benefits to our general education students who are now saying, ‘I want to become a special education teacher. This changed my thinking about my future,” Andrus said. “And so, we repeatedly see gen ed students whose hearts are warmed and welcome to opening themselves more to students with special needs. Those fears or those prejudices or those phobias are melting away because this is ‘The Murrieta Way.’

“It’s also influencing general cultures within clubs and rallies and activities on all campuses,” he continued. “It’s really remarkable to stand on a field or among kids and adults and just feel, in essence, the love that’s there and how they appreciate one another. It’s a tremendous benefit for the community.”

Special education recommendations

A package of 13 reports and a summary produced by Policy Analysis for California Education, a nonpartisan research and policy organization led by faculty from UC Berkeley, UCLA, University of Southern California and Stanford University, was published in 2020. The reports include promising recommendations that state leaders, institutions of higher education and LEAs can use to overhaul special education to better focus on the individual needs of students, improve teacher training, streamline services and enhance screening for the youngest children.

The reports are all available here: https://bit.ly/3psaX2J

Engagement is essential
San Mateo COE’s Bonini understands firsthand the difficulties of navigating the IEP process as a parent of a student who needed one from about fifth to eighth grade. “It’s a huge learning curve to understand all of the aspects of what’s out there, the resources, how to advocate, what teachers are actually trying to do, what it looks like to have a student in special education,” she said. “IEP meetings are really stressful for parents. It’s a lot of information, and most parents, unless they’ve done it before, don’t have a good sense of this process that the district is going through and how they make their decisions.” Meanwhile, districts sometimes believe parents are asking for too much. This disconnect can lead the process to become adversarial.

Bonini said a major focus for her is to encourage parents to better understand the process and be empowered to become leaders in the system, which she said should emphasize the positives a student with disabilities brings to the table rather than the deficits.

Lunn is in agreement, noting that “anything that increases parent or family engagement helps everyone become more educated about what we can and can’t do and what we are doing. All of these opportunities are family-oriented, and parents are so thankful.” Involving families and caregivers is imperative to the success of any inclusion initiative. For instance, the district’s Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC), which participates in developing Murrieta Valley’s Local Control and Accountability Plan, works closely with officials to provide recommendations. “They are very vocal, and they don’t hold back, which can be unnerving,” Lunn said. “Yes, they will tell us what we may not be prepared to respond to or support; however, you’ll get great direction. Sometimes, parents come up with some of the best solutions.”

Fremont USD’s English said having open and clear communication from the start benefits districts and students alike, and offering engagement opportunities through different avenues can help to ensure families feel heard. The district has a special education PTA, a SEPAC, a Community Advisory Committee and special education officials host a barbecue and an ice cream day for families.

Every month, the district offers a workshop on various topics. For families of students with more severe disabilities, workshops have covered good hygiene, teaching children self-care and how to do chores. “We just did AAC AT (Augmentative and Alternative Communication, Assisted Technology), and we talk to parents about the tech and what a student may need and how we determine that. Then they get to ask questions, and we bring in an expert on the topic,” English said.

Separately, English also hosts four “parent chats” a year. “I pick topics related to what I think they would need to know. One of them is just the basics of the IEP, the law, how we assess and what we use assessment for. We do quite a bit in this district and this SELPA to educate parents,” she said. “We do them virtually because we get a bigger turnout. We’ve had presentations with over 200 parents.”

What schools need now
There are several common themes that arose as potential solutions to longstanding challenges, including early intervention efforts; and increased teacher training and support — all of which require funding. If more was invested in schools — both for general and special education — additional spending could target interventions that would limit the number of students in need of special education in the first place, said English.

“The funding element is an important one — it does encroach upon our general fund,” Murrieta Valley’s Andrus agreed. The Unified Sports program has been funded through grants that are running out. To maintain these programs, which have proven critical for students, the district will need to allocate $100,000 from its budget — funds that would otherwise go toward providing general services.

“In general terms, it is lawmakers recognizing, at the state and federal level, that to really do this well, it takes people — and people cost money. The funding isn’t equitable to match the cost,” he said. “[But] this is our norm. It’s infiltrated so many parts of the district’s and each school’s culture, but it took work and it took effort.”

Alisha Kirby is a staff writer for California Schools.