Inclusion: Special education is theme of U.S., German educators' informational get-together
December 9, 2011
WIESBADEN, Germany - The U.S. civil rights movement brought about major changes in the way all Americans were treated under the law. Besides helping ensure everyone is guaranteed fairness in all aspects of daily life -- handicapped individuals saw improvements in access to public places, enhancement in services and greater inclusion in mainstream education.
"Our students are very accepting of students with disabilities because it is the norm. Children do not feel singled out," said Sharon O'Donnell, Wiesbaden High School principal. "We want all of our students to feel a part of the community."
O'Donnell and fellow Wiesbaden High School teachers and administrators shared their special education expertise with German educators, parents and a member of the Hessen Parliament interested in learning about how the German and American education systems differ during an informational get-together at the high school Nov. 21.
Citing the Americans with Disabilities Act signed into law in 1990 and referring to earlier legislation that helped encourage greater inclusion, O'Donnell said, "It is required by law. There must be accessibility for all of our students."
"It's one of our topics because we are working on a new law right now in Hesse," said Astrid Wallmann, a member of Hesse's Parliament.
"It's a very difficult issue," she added, explaining that unlike the United States where inclusion is mandated, Germany still operates two separate education systems. "We're in this political discussion right now.
"It's very interesting to see how it works here. We have two kinds of schools -- our public schools and schools for the handicapped where they receive a very good education," Wallmann said. "But there are parents who want to have their children in a normal school."
As German parents of children with special needs asked questions about the American school system, the Wiesbaden High educators explained the efforts and philosophy behind the changes introduced in special education in the last half-century.
"What we're always thinking about is keeping the child in the normal classroom as much as possible," said Annie Gardy, a speech/language pathologist and teacher of the learning impaired, during a presentation explaining the Department of Defense Education Activity policy calling for teachers to first explore various "educational interventions, accommodations, modifications and other strategies to remediate or address a student's needs before considering special education."
Through the development of a "comprehensive, multidisciplinary assessment plan," DoDDS-Europe educators "look at what the child's strengths and weaknesses are," Gardy said.
Debra Dombroff, a fellow teacher of the learning impaired, described how teachers are paired up in the classroom -- a general teacher with a special education teacher -- at Wiesbaden High to provide an inclusive educational experience for all students, including the 32 students determined to need an individualized education program. By sharing the experience, all students benefit through mentorship, the focus on "differentiated instruction" and the opportunity to be exposed to the rich diversity in the overall population.
"You have to develop the culture at your school," said Colleen Larkin, Wiesbaden High School assistant principal, explaining that it takes time and a concentrated effort to encourage understanding, acceptance and inclusivity among all of the educators and students. "All of the students have gifts in their own areas."
"There are all kinds of different ways that we work together to make everyone feel comfortable," said O'Donnell.
Constant communication between students, parents and educators is the key, teachers and administrators said, emphasizing that providing the least restrictive environment is the goal. Consistent evaluation of student progress and areas needing special attention throughout the year is also crucial.
"One of the problems in the German school system is that it would cost a lot of money because our schools aren't prepared," said Wallmann. "We need to go step by step to move forward."
Besides having a completely different school system in Germany where students are separated into different academic tracks early on in their school years, there are many other challenges to changing to a culture of inclusion, teachers and administrators said. A lack of handicapped accessible facilities, too few qualified special education teachers and other requirements are all impediments to changing the way things are done in Hessian schools, Wallmann said. "We also don't know how the parents would react to changes. We'll just have to see in the state of Hesse. I think it will take many years to get this done."
With the German parents and teachers eager for more information about how special needs programs function in the U.S. school system, O'Donnell extended an invitation for future cooperation. "If you come up with additional questions you send them to us by email or call us and we'll be glad to answer them.
I also think it would be a great idea for teachers to come in and observe and see how it works," she said.