“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Christian School Special Education

I was recently asked to help develop programs for a Christian school. Not an unusual request. However, as is sometimes the case, their starting point was something I just couldn't support. Their model was an entirely segregated, Christian school for children with disabilities. Although there are many private schools (mostly secular) who continue to provide segregated services, that is not a model we would want to embrace. My goodness, that has not been considered best practice since the 1970's!  I have visited many of these segregated schools, and overall they are really not very good. In part it is because they are for profit organizations. As I have discussed other times in this weblog, their priorities are different than what we might want for such schools. So for example, if you are a student placed there, my motivation for your improvement might be questioned as if you get better, you will go back to your public school and I lose a student. Additionally, when I provide services, your progress is not really critical to me as I am more interested in just billing for services. So it is not a question of, "Did Johnny improve as a result of services?" It is a question of, "Did I document spending an hour with Johnny, providing whatever the service was, for billing purposes?"

But I want to get back to Christian schools. If we are going to do something within the Christian school setting for students with disabilities, it should minimally reflect what have become known as best practices.  Let me provide just a sampling of what those practices should be.

1. Is the program integrated as much as is possible? Do students with and without disabilities have the opportunity to be socially integrated together? Public schools will sometimes try to use the academic classroom as the point of integration which may or may not be the best idea, depending on the needs of the students with disabilities academically. But even if the curricula needs to be different there are many ways outside of the curricula that students could be integrated together. However, if I create a segregated school, those opportunities become difficult or impossible. Our goal is for students to develop relationships and friendships together. But if they are not physically together, there is little chance that social interactions can occur. The benefits of these relationships go both ways, by the way. We all need each other and the blessings/benefits that grow out of being with each other.

2. Is the program set up to monitor progress by students with disabilities. As in the comments above about private schools, the question is not "Did I spend an hour with Johnny doing some activity?" The question should be, "Did Johnny get better as a result of the hour I spent with him (or hours I spend with him over time and what is the documentation of that progress)?" Special education has as a significant characteristic that if what I am doing is not working, I need to keep changing it until it does work. So that implies I need to be closely monitoring student performance, and that I need to employ a variety of educational strategies to facilitate the improvement I am hoping for. In the public schools, particularly among classes for students with more severe disabilities, educational programs become babysitting. That is not what they should be. Students should have their abilities maximized just as any student should.

3. Do you have a Biblical understanding of what disability is? Very few pastors take on this issue. However, there has been much written over the last 10 years which really fleshes out many of the answers to this question. If you as a teacher, director, founder do not have a Biblical understanding of disability, then you have homework to do before you begin your program. Some things you should research in gaining this understanding relate to understanding God's sovereignty and rejecting a secular view of disability. This understanding will change your perspective on what disability is and impact the development of the values underlying your programs. Too many Christian school special education programs do not reflect a clear understanding of a Christian perspective on people with disabilities.

4. Are you outcome focused? What do the graduates of your program do once they leave school? You should begin by asking what graduates of the public school system do when they leave school. I suspect many local school districts will not know. A good place to start would be to survey adults with they types of disabilities that your students will have, about their lives. There are some skills that they would identify as making their lives better and others that are not as important. Every community has certain types of jobs available. Do special education graduates have access to those types of jobs? Have they been prepared specifically for they types of jobs that are available in a particular community? Too often we don't even ask those questions. So when a students graduates they have no where to go because the school did not have the foresight to ask that obvious question.

I will provide just one more area although others could be imagined.

5. The most important thing in life is people, is friendships and personal relationships. Does your program facilitate the development of relationships between people with and without disabilities in the community? Churches may not be good at this, but schools that should know better can be oblivious to facilitating friendships. The more you understand what disability is, the more you recognize that what is needed relative to people with impairments is a change in the social environment such that it will stop being discriminatory. There is the potential that both relationships can be facilitated and discrimination can be diminished. These should be major outcomes for any school, particularly a Christian school that endeavors to include and serve students with disabilities.



Alison said...

Jeff, it is disappointing, though not at all unusual or surprising, that a Christian school is still looking at segregation as their preferred option for the education of children with disabilities. The academic research just does not support this as the best educational route for any child, with a disability or without disability, though many educational providers still have a view that it is. Christian schools often seem to see it as a loving response to a burden that is being borne. Robert Jackson at include.com.au has looked at thousands of academic research papers on educational segregation vs inclusion and has not found ONE that showed a better outcome, for a child with disability or without disability with disabled children included in their classrooms. Some examples - Calberg and Kavale (1980) did a meta analysis of 860 studies done up to that date and concluded that special class placements were significantly inferior to regular class placements for students with below average IQs. Sobsey and Dreimanis systematically reviewed all literature on inclusion from 1980 to 1990 and concluded that the research to date shows both educational and social advantages for integrated settings over segregated alternatives. 1996 Lipsky and Gartner found the same and actually stated that segregation was also more cost effective. 2000 Freeman and Alkin reviewed 100 studies and found integrated students performed better than segregated on measures of academic performance and social competence. The list of research continues on and all points to the same (uncomfortable conclusion for many) that segregation is not the better option. If you are discussing partial inclusion (ie inclusion for "nonacademic" subjects and segregation for the academic ones), Rea, McLaughlin and Walther-Thomas examined this in 2002 for 8th grade students and found those continuously included had higher grades. On the topic of social impact, an interesting study (Heiman 2000) found children in segregated schools had fewer friends and reported feeling lonelier than those in mainstream. And finally if the concern is raised of the effects of inclusion on the children without disability, Kalambouka, Farrell, Dyson, and Kaplan in 2007 reviewed 7000 academic articles on this topic and they found no adverse effects on pupils without disabilities on inclusion of children with disabilities, and in fact 81% of the studies reported positive effects on those without disabilities. With this weight of evidence for the last 40yrs all pointing to a better outcome across the board with inclusion, it's time Christian schools see full inclusion as the most appropriate response, not only for the educational outcome of all, but also from the perspective of Christians setting an example and loving and including those society may reject, as Jesus did.

Katie said...


If you haven't seen it already, I recommend watching "Including Isaac" (https://vimeo.com/118712017), about Isaac, a young man with spinal muscular atrophy and his friends at Byron Center Christian School (Byron Center, MI). As you'll see from this video, the BCCS community embraces Isaac's gifts and sees him as an essential member of their community. He is included in general education classes and has deep friendships with his peers. Their understanding of disability is one of mutuality and interdependence. They exemplify many of the practices highlighted in your post.

Thanks for advocating for inclusive school and church communities!

Katie @ CLC Network