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Setting the Captives Free

This post is written by Joanne Yatvin, NCTE’s P12 policy analyst for Oregon. 

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The events described in this story took place in the rural Oregon school district with a high poverty level where I was superintendent/principal for twelve years. We had only two schools: an elementary and a middle school, with no more than 400 students between them. Our goals were not to make all students “college or career ready” but to help them become the best individuals and citizens they could be. We focused on respect and personal attention, and changed our program for students classified as “disabled” in order to give them a chance to be winners instead of losers.

In 1990 we closed our special education classroom and set the captives free. Our intention was to return them all to their regular classrooms full time. This happened because we, as educators and caring adults, could no longer tolerate the daily pull-out system that made those students miss out on important teaching and practice in regular classrooms and caused them to be labeled “dummies” by their classmates.

What you would have seen if you had visited our special education room was a relentless dance of children drifting in, filling out workbook pages, getting them graded, and drifting out again. Their specialist teacher could not deal effectively with the wide range of student needs arriving every hour or with the students’ resentment about being there. He felt he had no choice but to use commercial self-instruction programs that required little or no teaching. What he and I both saw was that the kids weren’t learning much, but at least they were busy and quiet for a while.

One thing you have to know about special education at that time—and maybe still today—is that such teachers were often trained to manage student behavior rather than to teach skills and knowledge differently from regular teachers.

Usually, the elementary and middle school combined had about 25 students classified for special education. Most of them were classified as “learning disabled,” about five were called “emotionally disturbed,” and three, “mentally retarded.” Since we were not equipped to deal with children with severe disabilities who needed constant personal assistance, the state provided placement for them in a county school with a range of services full time. We paid their tuition fees.

What I felt was that most of our kids with disabilities should have been more accurately called intellectually or emotionally battered. The cruel irony was that our school was battering them too, by separating them from their classmates and the meaningful instruction part of every day and labeling them as deficient in everyone’s eyes. Worst of all, there was no way out; nobody ever got “unclassified.”

After deciding to free our students with disabilities, we did not just dump them into regular classrooms to flounder while their teachers fumed. Instead, a committee of our most experienced teachers and I worked out a plan that would support everyone, and then we reallocated our modest resources to implement it. First, we assumed that all teachers could teach students with disabilities as long as they had appropriate materials, instructional aides, common planning times, and consultations with our special education teacher. For example, at any given time, one group in a classroom might be doing silent reading, another one discussing what they had read, and a third one writing. Instructional aides—each one assigned to only two classrooms, so they would become well acquainted with the teaching and students’ needs in each place—helped students practice and master what their teacher had taught. Our special education teacher also worked in each classroom a couple of times a week, helping individual students or small groups.

Second, we decided that our mission was to teach students strategies above subject matter and to value resourcefulness above mastery. We accepted the fact that our students with disabilities might learn less and more slowly than their classmates. But we believed they would come away with enough skills and knowledge to manage the basics, get along with their classmates, and also acquire the exigencies of living in a complex society. Over the years that I was part of our full-inclusion program, we saw better teaching, better learning, better behavior, and much greater harmony and respect among our students in our mixed classrooms.

Over her 45 year career Joanne Yatvin was a teacher of almost all grades 1-12, an elementary and middle school principal, and a member of The National Reading Panel.  Since retiring she has done independent research in high poverty schools, written three books for teachers, and served as president of NCTE.