Service Integration in Our Public Schools

The integration of special education services into the special education classroom is key in public education, if for no other reason than to provide consistency for the acquisition of skills taught by a service specialist during a 30 minute session. This isn’t always the way of the world, but in a world where more and more people are asking “Why can’t we have inclusion all the time for everyone?”, it seems that this is a basic first step towards getting as close as we can at the moment.

This integration occurs in so many different ways, and based on what I have had the pleasure to observe, the implementation depends largely on the amount of students assigned to the caseload of each service provider; the larger the case load, the more difficult it is to serve students and teachers as their needs demand.

The most beautiful example of an ideal integrated therapies environment was one that I found during my student teaching in Illinois. There, a special education classroom teacher and a psychologist worked in tandem to support a small group of 6 to 8 students with emotional and/or behavioral diagnoses. This group would begin and end the day together, but during the day, would partner with various regular education teachers to co-teach lessons to a larger class, which included the special education students. The psychologist was assigned to the school as a whole, and while she did fulfill other responsibilities therein, this one classroom was a priority. If a student crisis arose, she would be immediately available to  co-teach, lead a small break out group, or to work with a student individually. Some whole days were spent with one student or one small group. She helped to coordinate parent communication, community outreach and supported other teachers in continuing any therapy practice that was beneficial to a student throughout their school experience. These professionals saw themselves as an essential team, one not being able to function fully without the others. And the most beautiful part was- it worked. Many of these students, having been subject to abuses  and neglect that left them isolated from typical interaction with others, were able to participate in their education in a way that was mush less removed from the experiences of their typically developing peers. Was their experience exactly the same? Not at all. Did the interventions always work? Not even close! Their integrated therapy worked by the same processes as therapy implementation in other settings, but for them, the process was faster, smarter and more thoroughly integrated, which meant, more effective. They were able to keep students in school and learning, who might otherwise have been relegated to an alternative environment.

So, what can we learn from this? How can we, of much fewer resources and with special education service providers with enormous case loads, attempt to imitate this faster, smarter and more thoroughly integrated approach?

I have a very non-answer sort of answer for you, because my answer seems to be largely untenable. Someone steps up. This is probably someone not someone trained to do so, or whose job description includes the said task. In many school settings where resources are thin on the ground and staff energies and attentions were too widely spread, I’ve seen teachers step up and fill in the gaps.

This is not exclusive to teachers; I’ve seen it with related service providers, administration, paraprofessionals, parents and even community members. These are the “see a need, fill a need” people. The ones that can’t let a problem sit and fester. So what is the problem? Why is this untenable?

The school system is not structured to adapt. In most business environments, a situation like this would demand for restructuring, rethinking the current structure to incorporate the tools necessary to meet new needs. In the public school systems, where resources are few and (maybe more of a problem) not fluid, changes happen too slowly to respond appropriately. And if the school system doesn’t adapt, then those people we spoke of earlier, those “see a need, fill a need” folks, they get burned out and their resourcefulness and the effective integration burns out with them.

So, for the kind of integration that helps our students to remain in their least restrictive environment while also getting consistent and appropriate levels of therapy to promote their school progress, we need something more from our public schools. How we get that is a question for another day, but I have a feeling that I’ll revisit this when the subject of school structuring innovation comes around. While you may want to shout at me right now “The answer is money! We need lower staff to student ratios, more service providers with lighter case loads, and that takes more money!”, I would like to see if there is, perhaps something more subtle going on that would help the money to give us the environment that we need. The root of problems like this are so far reaching, so much closer to the heart of why our public education systems keep reaching for reform and falling right back where they started than the simple funding answer will cover, and I feel like the question begs much more complexity.

Maybe some of the more successful Charter programs have something to tell us. If you want to start investigating with me, I’m going to start with the KIPP schools and see where I end up. See you on the flip side!

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