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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

A landmark U.S. court decision 25 years ago said children with disabilities have the right to be included and educated in the least restrictive environment alongside non-disabled peers. But the courts were less than clear on just what least restrictive really means. Twenty-five years later, the U.S. has come a long way but change has been slow.

Despite the ruling, today in the U.S. 17 percent of students with any disability spend all or most of their days segregated. Children with severe disabilities can still expect to spend most or all of their day separated. The debate over inclusion, that's today's cover story.

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WESTERVELT: At Presidio Middle School in San Francisco, about 10 percent of the school's 1200 students are special needs children. That covers a broad range from a mild learning disability to moderate and severe physical, emotional and mental disabilities. Principal Tony Payne leads me through the wide hallways. In some ways, it's a very typical public school but something unusual is going on at Presidio. Principal Payne, a former teacher, is in just his second year here. In that time, he and his staffers have pushed to do more to integrate special ed children into the general education classrooms.

We stop into a seventh-grade math and science class.

TONY PAYNE: I mean, as you look around it's - just by looking you can't necessarily tell me who's the gifted kid and who's the kid with a disability.

WESTERVELT: At Presidio, this is what an inclusive classroom looks like. There's some 30 kids sitting in four rows of wooden desks. All are using old, but still working, school-issued laptop computers. The class mixes kids with mild to moderate physical and intellectual disabilities with non-disabled kids. Special-needs kids sit next to ones who've been deemed gifted and talented. The mixing is done carefully and quietly. Students don't necessarily know who's working at what level. Teacher Grey Todd.

GREY TODD: For example, one girl who is sitting in the middle, she's one of the higher performing students. And so she sits with kids on either side of her that might need extra help. So they can just turn to her and ask for help.

WESTERVELT: Todd co-teaches this math and science class with a special ed teacher named Scott Booth, who stands in front of the classroom teaching how to read graphs.

SCOTT BOOTH: What do you think the population of San Francisco is? Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Seven thousand?

BOOTH: Seven thousand. A little more than seven thousand.

(LAUGHTER)

BOOTH: Albert.

ALBERT: A lot.

BOOTH: A lot. Yes, a lot.

WESTERVELT: Grey Todd sits at a nearby computer monitoring each student's progress as they wrestle with math, graphs and the day's assignment. Both teachers say new software and technology have greatly enhanced their ability to custom tailor lessons to each kid and expand inclusion. This is one of only a handful of mixed classrooms at Presidio, but Grey Todd says so far it's working and changing lives.

TODD: We're seeing kids that in my day would've never been in a classroom like this, showing that they're perfectly capable. I had one kid last year, one of my favorites, who's very high on the autistic spectrum, doesn't talk. And that kid is one of the top performing students academically in the whole school. And yet he probably wouldn't have had that opportunity had he been sent to a special day class because he has difficulty communicating with other people.

And when he's able to be accepted for that and not ostracized or sent to a separate room, I think it makes him that much more viable to himself and to the community.

WESTERVELT: But even at a school district such as San Francisco Unified, which is making a huge effort to expand inclusive classrooms, administrators and teachers here say there are still limits.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: I'm very proud of you. Gretchen, real good.

WESTERVELT: On Presidio's ground floor, eight kids with more severe disabilities are isolated in their own classroom. It's reserved for children with moderate to severe physical, emotional and intellectual challenges. They're sitting at desks cutting pieces of paper into thin strips, and numbering them.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Right. So when you - first you had to cut it. Then what do you do after you cut it?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: You cut it first.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: What's the next?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (Unintelligible)

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: No. What's the next?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Write the numbers.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Write the numbers. And what's the final?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Put it in the envelope.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Put the envelope in.

WESTERVELT: Good.

One student in the corner, a girl, isn't talking. She's staring out the window. She doesn't want to cut paper. This segregated classroom is the traditional mainstay of special education but even with these more challenged kids, Presidio is including them every day in gym class, art and other electives. Dan Habib is with the University of New Hampshire's Institute on Disability. He's an advocate for inclusion. His son Samuel has cerebral palsy. Samuel's 14 and about to go into high school. Habib says his son and their family have reaped the benefits of full inclusion.

DAN HABIB: That inclusion in school transfers to the relationships and the supports he gets from friends outside of school. And he's also had a tremendous impact on his peers. His peers now see disability as part of the natural diversity of our world.

WESTERVELT: I asked Habib about the autistic boy the teacher at Presidio Middle School just mentioned who has trouble talking but is flourishing in the inclusive classroom.

HABIB: Perhaps that teacher was surprised by how much the student could achieve. And we've seen that again and again with Samuel, that he surprises teachers because you look at Sam when he was a kid who uses a wheelchair. You know, he might be drooling, he's struggling to speak. There is a tremendous stigma in this country around people with disabilities. And so there are often low expectations.

But, you know, I look back to other civil rights movements like 60 years ago when African-Americans were gradually integrated into school. I know that's - there's still a long ways to go in that respect as well, but this is about systems that have been in place for a long time, of special and regular education. And I think for a lot of administrators and teachers it's what's familiar to them, so it continues.

And it does take a lot of work to dismantle a system and build a new one. But if we know it's going to yield better outcomes for kids with disabilities, it's the only way to go forward.

WESTERVELT: What about parents of disabled kids who say, look, I want my kid in a separate class where he or she can get more focused individualized one-on-one attention that they think he or she needs?

HABIB: Well, first of all, I think that the whole idea of life skills is an overused term. My son Samuel picks up his life skills from watching his peers and being with his peers. I think they are a far greater therapist than any of the wonderful physical therapists that we've worked with.

I also think you can deliver those same interventions in the general ed environment. It takes a lot of organization and a lot of strategic thinking from especially the leadership of a school to organize classrooms in a way that kids get what they need to be successful, whether they have a label of a disability or not.

WESTERVELT: Yeah, I was struck when I went to Presidio. In the class with kids with severe disabilities, they were cutting strips of paper and putting numbers on them. And I asked the teacher about it and they said, you know, we're helping to teach them, you know, independent life skills. You're arguing that, look, that's the wrong way to look at it.

HABIB: Right. I want Samuel to get a regular high school diploma. I want him to have the opportunity to go to college. I want him to have meaningful employment. I want him to have relationships. And all that is possible. But I don't see it being possible if he spends his whole school education on a separate track.

And again, if parents make a different decision because they really feel that's what's best for their child, you know, every parent loves their child. Every parent does what's right for their child. But as a matter of public policy, every school needs to give every child access to the general education curriculum and classroom. They need to give kids that opportunity.

WESTERVELT: At Presidio Middle School, special education teacher Craig Holvoet agrees the opportunity is important. But after 40 years of teaching special ed, he says it's complicated.

CRAIG HOLVOET: It works for some, it doesn't work for others. I believe inclusive is fine if you want the socialization, but if you want functional living skills or you want survival skills then you have to break it down.

WESTERVELT: Just two years into having these inclusive classrooms, Presidio is trying to figure out where the limits are. That mixed seventh grade classroom learning about graphs and population, their teacher told me that two of those kids with disabilities will have to move downstairs to that separate classroom next year. With math skills at the 3rd grade level, he says, they're just too far behind to stay in the inclusive class.

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