SAN ANTONIO — At one desk sits a boy who's got such emotional problems he's been taken into protective custody before. Beside him sits a boy who's angling to ace the sixth-grade math curriculum before the end of fifth grade.
Some of the children in Christine Kostrzewa's classroom couldn't read a word at the start of the school year. Others read at a high school level.
The thing that struck a visitor most was that, in watching the San Antonio Elementary fifth-grade class during math, she couldn't determine which students were part of the school's special education program and which weren't.
"I can't tell who is who," said Erica Hayden, a special education teacher in training who sat in on Kostrzewa's class. "When you have an ESE student who can participate in a basic education class with simple modifications, it makes all the difference in the world."
At first, though, it created a great deal of angst.
San Antonio Elementary began "inclusion" this school year, with four teams adopting the practice at the impetus of new principal Vanessa Hilton.
Exceptional student education "really should be a service rather than a place," Hilton explained. "Isolating (special education students) into a smaller classroom is not necessarily the best way to prepare them for what the real world is going to hold for them."
People fear change, though. And in this small, close-knit community, Hilton found some hesitation toward a new way of handling special education, particularly because the school had performed well doing it the old way.
Parents questioned having their children mixed together. Students also worried.
"We were kind of nervous at first, because we had no idea what was going to happen," said Ashton Brock, 10.
But before long, the kids realized that having classmates of differing abilities and needs mattered little.
"We work all together and help each other to get smarter," said Gracie Britton, also 10.
"I made a lot of friends and met some new teachers," said Jason Arnold, 12. He added that the inclusion class set up has helped improve his academics, too.
That's the main point, said Kostrzewa, a 28-year teaching veteran and one-time Pasco teacher of the year finalist.
Kids at the top end get their lessons reinforced, while also receiving more challenging work to allow them to keep moving ahead. Meanwhile, kids at the low end are graded on their own level, but also get exposed to a higher curriculum that they might not have seen otherwise.
Both groups get to know each other, too.
"It's easier this way," said Matthew Telese, 11. "Now you can understand what they understand, and you can help."
Added Colin Hennessy, also 11, "It turned out very great."
Labels still matter, Kostrzewa said. In fact, she said, they help her to tailor her instruction to meet each child's needs, she said.
The difference is, she doesn't act as if the children's labels are on their shirts.
During a lesson on equivalent fractions, for instance, she reviews practice questions with everyone in the room. Pretty much everyone participates, even if they don't get the answers right.
Then Kostrzewa announces the remedial, regular and challenge problems of the day, and tells the class to complete the one they know they're supposed to. If anyone needs help, she tells them to "meet me at the back desk."
Some kids immediately head back, seeking more information. Others stick to their small teams, working on the questions on their own and seeking help from their neighbors before turning to the teacher.
She grades them on their progress, so a special education student who successfully completes five of 20 questions might earn the same mark as the gifted student who gets them all right, plus some extra credit.
"That's part of good teaching," said Vicki Barnitt, state coordinator of product development for the Florida Inclusion Network. "Wouldn't you want that in all classrooms?"
Inclusion is not required under federal law, although it is contemplated under the mandate that students be educated in the "least restrictive" environment. For many years, Barnitt said, the 16-year-old Florida Inclusion Network was "begging people to let us help them find ways to include kids."
The advent of No Child Left Behind, which requires schools to measure the progress of all students, changed things, she said. Now that their scores count, schools pay more attention to students with special needs.
The Pasco school district has been on the forefront of inclusion, even helping to write a manual that is used internationally on how to best implement the concept. San Antonio Elementary is just the latest to warm to it.
Kostrzewa sees it working at many levels.
One gifted student attended the birthday party of a special needs classmate for the first time, for instance. One of the kids who couldn't read or write before now writes page-long essays and can read short stories.
"I overheard one mother say, 'My son had never been exposed to kids like this and, gosh, it has been great for him,' " Kostrzewa said.
She posed the concept to her class.
"The idea in here is to be successful and to want to come to school. Agreed?" she said.
"Agreed," the students responded in unison.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.