Danielle Paskins was not supportive when she heard that her son would be integrated into a general-education classroom. West Linn-Wilsonville School District in Oregon reached full integration for its special needs students in the 2015-2016 school year, and Danielle was worried about her 9-year-old son, Nate.
Nate has Down syndrome and autism and is nonverbal, and Danielle worried that she’d be told her son’s behavior had disrupted the other third-graders. “What if my child is taking away from the education of all the other kids?” she said. “I was imagining he was at school crying and being hushed all day.”
But her views changed when Nate’s class sent home a handmade book they’d made for him. The book was filled with hand-drawn pictures and notes about the things the other students had it common with Nate, like a love of dogs and an appreciation for playground time. Nate’s teacher wrote that they were so grateful for Nate’s presence in their class, “We love the same things you love, and we will love you! You are a blessing to all of us!” his teacher said.
In a tearful message on Facebook Live, Danielle shared that she would treasure the book always.
Before 2012, West Linn-Wilsonville School District sent students with special needs to segregated classrooms. Now, regardless of whether the student has dyslexia, ADHA, Down syndrome, autism, or another special need, they spend a majority of their time in a general education classroom alongside general education students.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t receive the support they need. Nate, for example, has a full-time dedicated aide, and the school will modify a student’s curriculum and provide support from specialists as needed. But the district’s assistant superintendent, Jennifer Spencer-Iiams, feels strongly that the students should spend time in a regular class. “Students—no matter what their learning style or why they’re receiving special education—they need to feel like they belong with their peers,” she said. “They need to feel a part of the work.”
Integration has taken the district six years, and in that time general education teachers and special education aides have learned to work together to react to disruptive behaviors. But over time the behaviors that were considered disruptive have become less disruptive, because general education students are now accustomed to them. Different behaviors from special needs students aren’t seen as strange or disturbing anymore; they’re just part of the classroom.
In fact, integration has helped general education students see their special education peers in a new light. Aubree Schrandt, a general-education high school student, told King5 News that she’d never met someone with a special need before she started high school, but having special needs students learn alongside her has helped her understand them. “These kids work twice as hard, and they’re role models to a lot of people. You would never think of that if you don’t build a relationship with them,” she said.
Spencer-Iiams said the most important change has been in mindset. Integration has given staff higher academic expectations for students with special needs. “Just because these kids couldn’t express it to us on a multiple choice test or in a five-paragraph essay doesn’t mean they can’t be learning the content at least in some way, shape or form,” she said.
The mindsets of students and staff at West Linn-Wilsonville School District are changing, and the sense of belonging for all students is growing. That’s what Danielle Paskins is most grateful for: “A sense of belonging. Isn’t that what every kid wants?” she said, referring to her son Nate.
Spencer-Iiams would love to see other schools work toward higher levels of integration. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states that students with special needs have a right to learn in the “least restrictive environment.” But a 100% inclusion rate is still rare. Underfunded special education systems are part of the challenge, and Spencer-Iiams admits that the work has been challenging.
“It’s been simultaneously awesome and really hard,” she said. “There are challenges and things we have to keep working with but once you’ve seen that all children belong, how can you start separating them back out?”