Straight talk about special education
A pragmatist on the Hillsborough County School Board, Candy Olson speaks her mind even if what she says, in some circles, is not politically correct. With much discussion centered around exceptional student education, Olson spent some of Thursday's workshop challenging the notion that inclusion is always best.
Here is some of what she said:
"I think everyone who is sitting here in this room knows that we have parents who beg for inclusion, who plead for inclusion, who demand inclusion and threaten to sue for inclusion. But inclusion, as far as I can tell, has never been declined.
"We have 190,000 children. 40,000 of them have significant medical needs. Close to 30,000 of them are special needs kids. Some are both. And what I hear in schools, I hear the compassion. I hear the fear that they’re going to be next. I hear frustration, cause they're really not quite sure of what to do.
"I said something to a principal about a child who wants to run away, and she said, 'oh yes,' she named a child she had the year before. I had already heard about that child from parents and teachers and other adults at the school. And what I heard was how much time the teacher and other teachers and custodians and lunchroom ladies and parents and administrators and coaches had spent to keep that child safe.
"While we lost several children and that is tragic, we have kept thousands of children safe day after day. But at what cost? At what cost to teachers and other staff, and at what cost to other children? We’ve talked about the number of kids and the severity. But we really haven’t talked about what that means to the school.
"While we have an obligation to care for these special needs kids, I think we have other obligations as well. I think we need an honest, open conversation about what appropriate means and what inclusion means in real world school level terms. Not only for the special ed teachers, but for the general teachers. We ought to talk about the cost of caring for and educating every one of our children. Not just in dollars, not just in checklists and documentation, but in terms of the impacts on the children and the adults in the school. We ought to talk about whether we should rethink how we serve our children in special needs, how we provide the best possible education to every child.
" I don’t think we’ve given a lot of thought to the other kids. That’s logical because an IEP [individualized education program] meeting is set to determine what is best for the particular child. That's where mom and dad come, advocates come, professionals come to focus on that child. And they look at what's best for that child. I've only been to a few IEP's so I don't know how much attention is paid to the impact on the environment, the school's culture the physical setting, other adults. But I don't think it's a lot.
"I think if we don’t very carefully reconsider and reform what services are appropriate and where we deliver them to our very large and diverse population of children with very different kinds of special needs, we are not doing our duty to every single child in this district and to every single adult. So i think once we have done the work about safety, and vigilance, all of which is important, Mrs. Elia and senior staff and possibly the board need to talk about whether we develop some templates. And we say, 'here are schools throughout the district that are very good at serving these children. Here are school where we know we can keep children who run safe. They are not near busy streets or bodies of water. We can secure them.
"We have limited resources. Our budget is huge, but that's because our obligations are huge. And until we start to think very carefully about the very best use of those resources, we haven't finished this work.
"Now, I know there are parents who will say, 'but I want my child to go to the school across the street.' So I think we need to have a candid conversation about that. And sometimes we need to say, 'that school is not set up to serve your child and your child's needs.
"As a district, we need to draw a more clear picture that really respects all the abilities and all the cultures of the schools."