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Area promotes dignity, inclusion in classrooms

I read, with dismay, the OBSERVER’s decision to post an online poll question to our community on June 12: “Should special education children be integrated into regular classrooms?”

As an educator and school system leader at Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES, I’m especially attuned to the needs of our most vulnerable young people in our schools. These students need to learn differently: they require extra support, extra time or deeper understanding of their learning needs. Over 13% of our region’s students receive special education services, and diverse learners are presently integrated in every school district in our state.

It’s one thing for a local paper to provoke media discourse. It’s foolish to think that thoughtless provocation bears no societal cost to basic human dignity.

President Ford signed what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975. 44 years ago. IDEA is rooted in a fundamental premise that every person has human dignity and a right to an education that is “least restrictive.” “Least restrictive” has often translated to more inclusive settings. That is, our students with special learning needs do not belong in segregated settings. They deserve a presumption of access to classrooms with peers where they can contribute and be successful.

Yet public debate about inclusion of learners with special needs has often shown little regard for every student’s human dignity. Too often, discussion of inclusion tilts toward the wants and needs of a few adults or “general education” learners.

Resistance to inclusion also often blinds itself to proven benefits of inclusive settings for all involved. Learners ready for citizenship in our diverse communities and workplaces need skills beyond traditional disciplines. Inclusive classrooms help all students become better citizens and deeper human beings. All students in these settings appreciate human differences more, realize their own strengths and find their own purpose and dignity in new roles. They learn kindness.

Teaching is a demanding profession. Teaching in an inclusive environment requires current, updated methods and support. As a former high school English teacher, I can testify to the thoughtful work required to teach in an inclusive classroom. Working directly with a gifted special education teacher taught me new strategies. An inclusive classroom demanded changes, and I had to adapt.

The good work of classroom inclusion demands training and support. It also requires the positive focus of all adults to create an inclusive school culture. Forty-four years after IDEA was signed into law, this paper’s staff can help set a tone that supports all students. Let us shift our focus toward every child’s basic human dignity.

David O’Rourke is the District Superintendent and CEO of Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES, an organization providing education programs and services for students and schools in Western New York.

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