• by Laura Chris Green, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 1996 • 

Inclusion can be viewed as the logical culmination of a trend toward the appreciation of diversity in our nation’s schools. This trend began in 1954 with the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision. As educators, we have moved beyond learning to tolerate the presence of those who are different toward learning to value those who walk and talk differently, those who learn differently and even those who break the usual social rules because of their emotional handicaps.

We have also moved beyond asking only that the schools place students of different races on the same campus toward realizing that the interactions between students of different races, cultures, languages and abilities need to be genuine and sustained if true communication and understanding are to occur.

This article describes a very special project co­sponsored by the IDRA Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative (DAC­SCC), the University of Texas at Austin and a special education advocacy group known as the Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC) of Texas. After exploring the philosophical and historical foundations of the project, the article describes the elementary school, Powell Elementary in San Antonio, Texas, that has taken on the challenge of creating a model for the effective inclusion of all students that will embrace African American, White and Hispanic; poor and middle class; bilingual and monolingual; regular and special education.

From Desegregation to Inclusion

When desegregation efforts began in the late 1950s, bussing and racial ratios were the primary tools used to establish parity between White and African American students. The goal was to have members of both races in every school. This goal was largely accomplished, but it became evident that less overt forms of discrimination continued to hamper the education of African American students. Ability grouping, tracking and low teacher expectations resulted in over­retention in grade, over­representation in special education and compensatory programs, under­representation in gifted and talented and other accelerated programs and higher dropout rates.

Meanwhile, other minority groups began observing similar trends for their children. The Lau vs. Nichols decision in 1974 supported Chinese parents in San Francisco, agreeing that an English­only curriculum without modifications discriminated against their non­English­speaking children. Hispanic Americans also advocated for bilingual programs, and a Mexican American parent brought to national attention the gross inequities caused by the system used to fund public schools in the San Antonio Independent School District vs. Rodríguez case.

Bilingual and English as a second language (ESL) programs became common in schools attended by linguistically diverse students throughout the country, but were especially prevalent in California, Texas, New York, Florida and other states with large immigrant populations.

Most of these programs provided services either on a pull­out basis or in self­contained classrooms.

Charles Cornell tells us that pull­out special language programs are the most common and the least effective programs (1995). Self­contained classrooms at the secondary level provide typically a maximum of 90 minutes of ESL instruction with students spending two­thirds or more of their day n regular classroom settings. Self­contained classrooms at the elementary level are usually full­day programs. But, in both kinds of self­contained classrooms, students are largely segregated from their English­speaking peers.

Special education students, like minority and language minority students, also have been the targets of programs that separate them from so­called “normal” students. Depending on the perceived severity of the disability, some special education students spend one or two periods a week outside the regular classroom. Others attend special schools and thus are totally isolated from the regular program.

Students who are culturally and linguistically diverse and also are eligible for special education services pose additional challenges to educational systems. The over­representation of minority and language­minority students in special education continues despite concerted efforts to identify fairly and assess these students. Leonard Baca and J.S. De Valenzuela state:

“Bilingual special education is at a crossroads. Though it is apparent that changes must occur, it is not so clear what should be changed or how changes should be implemented” (1994).

Recognition of the negative consequences of the labeling and stereotyping that results from special education placement, from the over­representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students and from increasing research proving the general ineffectiveness of special education pull­out programs led to the current emphasis on inclusion.

The National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities defines inclusion as:

the practice of providing a child with disabilities with his or her education within the general education classroom with the supports and accommodations needed by that student (1995).

This is based on the principle of least restrictive environment as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which means that, to the greatest extent possible, the student is educated with non­disabled children. A continuum of placement options must be available, ranging from instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction and instruction in hospitals and institutions.

Like other general principles designed to protect children, the principle of least restrictive environment has been interpreted and practiced very differently depending on different attitudes and belief systems. There are schools where the mere idea of moving a self­contained special education unit from the hinterlands of the portables and into the main building is taboo. There are other schools where all special education students, including those who were severely emotionally disturbed, are mainstreamed for all, or at least part, of the day. Fortunately, the latter seem to be becoming more common than the former.

As in the beginning days of desegregation, it is not enough to place diverse students together physically in order to obtain the maximum social and academic benefits for all students. The provision of “supports and accommodations needed by that student” must include regular classroom teachers trained in how to meet the needs of special students without neglecting those of others in the classroom.

Many of the solutions used to improve achievement for economically disadvantaged, minority and language­minority children can also be applied to disabled students, e.g., cooperative learning, teacher expectations student achievement (TESA), active, student­centered learning, accelerated learning, curriculum integration and parental involvement.

If we are serious about providing an excellent education to all students – including minority, language­minority and special education students – then we must move away from a deficit model in which “disabilities are physiologically based and located within the individual” and move toward a model in which general and special education systems are seen as dysfunctional because they deny the strengths and abilities of specific individuals (Baca and Valenzuela, 1994). We must question the underlying assumptions that say there is something wrong with the student (and his or her parents) and learn to restructure schools so that they accommodate and even celebrate diversity.

Project Site Description

Powell Elementary, located in the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, was selected by staff from the IDRA Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative (DAC­SCC), the Department of Special Education at the University of Texas at Austin, and Inclusion Works (a program of the ARC of Texas) to participate in a collaborative project designed to improve and broaden its inclusion efforts. The school was chosen for its demographic characteristics and because it had a district­wide reputation for its genuine commitment to inclusion. Upon being contacted about the project, its principal, Rebecca Mitchell, enthusiastically accepted the challenge, on behalf of her staff, to create a model for the effective inclusion of all students.

With an enrollment of approximately 500 students, Powell Elementary has the following demographics:


Ethnic group Percent
Hispanic 74%
White 17%
African American 6%

Special Populations

Population Percent
Special Education 20%
LEP 5%
Gifted and Talented 4%
Economically Disadvantaged 74%

The percentage of students in special education programs is high because the school receives many students from other neighborhood schools not offering programs for students with some of the more severe handicaps.

Each grade level has one bilingual teacher, who teaches the identified LEP students in that grade, and about three regular program teachers. Six special education teachers and several paraprofessionals provide special education support. The staff also has reading, math, art, music and physical education specialists.

Project Description

The three­ member team from IDRA (myself), the University of Texas (Dr. Shernaz García) and ARC of Texas (Dr. Randy Soffer) began the project with a focus on ways that teachers used a problem solving process to meet the needs of “hard to teach” students. We knew that many schools have been successful in improving achievement for special education students through teacher assistance teams or other systems designed to build teacher support teams for solving the educational problems of individual students.

We envisioned a school where teacher support teams helped each other with classroom management, instructional techniques and curriculum content for the benefit of regular, bilingual and special education students. Regular, bilingual and special educators would merge their expertise to help individual students and restructure their classrooms as needed for all students.

Dr. Soffer, Dr. García and I agreed that our first step would be to collect data from the campus on how their pre­referral system for the identification and placement of special education students (the CHILD process) worked and how well they perceived that it worked. We met with the principal in the early spring of 1996 to discuss the overall goals of the project and decide how to introduce it to all of the faculty. She shared with us the district­mandated forms used to guide the CHILD process as well as her campus improvement plan and her Chapter I school­wide improvement plan for the 1995­96 school year. She also informed us that each grade level had regular inclusion team meetings in which regular and special education teachers discussed modifications before and after special education placement.

We decided to spend a few days on campus interviewing teachers and observing classrooms and inclusion team meetings. Interviews and interactions with teachers focused on the following questions.

  • If you have a problem with a particular student, whether it be a learning or behavior problem, who or what group do you turn to first for help and advice?
  • Is there a second source you would turn to if the first source proves unsuccessful? Is there a third source?
  • [If the school­wide problem solving group is not mentioned] Are you aware that there is a school­wide problem solving group that you can turn to for help? [If no] Would you use it to help you if the need arises in the future or would you continue to use your other sources of help? Why or why not? [If yes] On a scale of one to five (five being the highest), how would you rate the effectiveness of the current group? What do you like about it? Why don’t you use it? What if anything would need to change for you to start using it?
  • [If the school­wide problem solving group is mentioned] On a scale of one to five (five being the highest), how would you rate the effectiveness of the current group? What do you like about it? What would you need to happen for you to rate it higher? In other words, how could it be improved?
  • Ideally, what would you like to see included in the school­wide problem solving system or process? (For example, how quickly should the group respond to problems, who should be a part of the group, etc.)

The classroom observations focused on observing how students with severe handicaps were included in classroom activities and the implementation of the bilingual program. Only one day could be devoted to these observations such that only one classroom per grade, two of which were bilingual classrooms, were observed. We also observed meetings of the fourth grade inclusion team and the prekindergarten-kindergarten-first grade inclusion team. Teachers at all grade levels were interviewed.

The next step was an introduction to the entire faculty and staff and the collection of more data. The three-member team of consultants presented an overview of teacher assistance teams and distributed a survey to all present (see box on Page 4).

Data on the number of children who went through one or more levels of the CHILD process were also collected for the 1994­95 school year and the 1995 spring semester (see box below).

The project consultants created a joint report that summarized all of the data collected at that time and provided a list of recommendations for improving the problem solving system at Powell Elementary. This report was shared with all faculty and staff by the campus principal who later received written feedback from several grade level teams. Of particular concern was the short amount of time devoted to classroom observations and some confusion about the purposes of the project.

We then held a three­way phone conference between the principal and a small group of teachers. The first part of the meeting was devoted to clarifying and correcting the data that had been collected and in reviewing the goals and objectives of the project. Next, the group discussed the recommendations for improvement and identified additional areas of concern. It became clear that three areas were seen by the principal and the teachers as targets for desired improvement: (1) parental involvement; (2) curriculum alignment, especially of the language arts curriculum; and (3) the strengthening of systems for teacher support.

Next Steps

Powell Elementary is now ready to spend a year improving these three areas with the ultimate goal of increasing academic achievement for all students. A pre-service day of training will be devoted to examining best practices in the three areas and forming campus-wide teams who lead efforts to change current practices. The three teams will include representation from all grade levels and from special and bilingual education programs. Teacher specialists, paraprofessionals and parents will also serve on all three teams. To the greatest degree possible, faculty and staff will be allowed to choose their team assignments. Each team will then develop a set of objectives and activities for their assigned area (curriculum, parental involvement and teacher support). These will be incorporated into the campus improvement plan.

Teams will meet at least monthly throughout the school year to plan and implement improvement activities. Meetings in which all three teams come together to ensure consensus and plan compatibility will occur every two or three months. The combined resources of the IDRA DAC-SCC, the Department of Bilingual Special Education at the University of Texas at Austin, and ARC of Texas will be available to provide the teachers with customized training and team building activities throughout the year as needed.

This ambitious and exciting project should begin to bear fruit by the end of the 1996-97 school year. An update next fall will be provided to IDRA Newsletter readers. Until then, you can contact Dr. Laura Chris Green, IDRA project coordinator, by phone (210-444-1710) or by E-mail (feedback@idra.org).


Baca, Leonard and J. S. De Valenzuela. “Reconstructing the Bilingual Special Education Interface,” NCBE Program Information Guide Series (Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, Fall 1994) Number 20.

Cornell, Charles. “Reducing Failure of LEP Students in the Mainstream Classroom and Why it is Important,” Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students. (Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, Winter 1995) Volume 15.

NICHCY. “Planning for Inclusion,” NICHCY News Digest. (Washington, DC: National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, July 1995) Volume 5, Number 1.

Dr. Laura Chris Green is an education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]