On Special Education in CPS: An interview with Paula Ladin

Paula Ladin is a special ed. teacher and a mother of three young children. She has recently taught at Columbia College in the Special Ed. Teacher Certification Program. She is currently trying to convince her husband to get some egg-laying chickens in their backyard and is looking for a job. (During our interview, Paula was simultaneously holding a conversation with her father, making homemade pizzas for her children—who were drawing at the dinner table—and nursing her youngest.)

Paula, how long have you been teaching and where?

I’ve been teaching since 1991. I have taught in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and in public schools in the south suburbs. Now I teach at a therapeutic day school.
Special ed. gets the same status as bilingual ed. because of the official “law of inclusion”. Before the 1970s there was no free education for young people with “disabilities.” Many people were filing discrimination suits, suing school systems to include bilingual kids with behavior disorders and kids with a physical or mental disability. In 1975, PL94142 brought “free and appropriate public education” to kids with disabilities.

How does this ”law of inclusion” break down among the different groups?

First of all, now the school system takes everyone. No one is rejected. This is how the rest of it plays out:
1. They perform a non-discriminating evaluation, which is a test to see if the child has a disability. This test is mostly language-based. And if a child’s language is Polish, the test needs to be administered in Polish.
2. After the results of this test come in and it has been determined that the kid is special ed., then a whole team of educators devises a plan for the individual child. This is called the IEP or Individual Education Plan.
3. There needs to be parental involvement—a significant portion of parents are well-informed enough, but sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
4. There is due process, meaning the home or the school can decide that they don’t like the IEP and can take a legal route if necessary. Obviously, this is a last resort and can get messy, expensive and ugly.
5. The student is placed in Least Restrictive Environment, which means the closest to same-aged peers as possible.

This inclusion of kids that need IEPs sounds like it takes a lot of additional time and resources. How does the school system handle all this?

Oh, inclusion is absolutely about money. You don’t have to pay for a special teacher, a special room, extra-large sized pencils for challenged motor skills… so they close the special ed. school and then push those kids into a mainstream classroom.

It sounds like you’re not an advocate of inclusion.

I am an advocate, and there are some places in Chicago where it works beautifully, but in general the system isn’t set up for most of these kids. I don’t want to seem anti-inclusion, it’s just that it’s so poorly implemented, I have to be critical of it. I want what is best for the kid, not what’s best for the school system.
Ideally, before “Inclusion,” the kids moved from one side to the other side, there is this “Continuum of Services.”

…the “Continuum?”

The “Continuum of Services” was conceived of something like this: hospital/homebound, therapeutic day school, and then “self-contained”—which means special ed. all day, maybe with some mainstreaming (like going to gym class with the other kids), “resource/pull out” (where the kids share home room but kids are pulled out for special ed.) and lastly, “inclusion/push-in’ (where maybe a special ed. teacher is inside of the regular classroom to help with the mixed ability of the students).
But as with this old system and this new one of “inclusion,” attention to individuals requires money and there is less and less of it. So the number of kids that are being served has gone down and the kids that are being served are treated like second-class citizens.
And, frankly, the numbers of children that are labeled with a disability or are struggling in school—who, in other words, are special ed.—are increasing and the stakes are higher. Now we are getting 10-year-old kids that are already in the justice system and autism rates are 1 in 147 when fifty years ago they were closer to 1 in 2,000.
And besides, this labeling is tricky.

So what do you think accounts for this?

Mother Nature had a plan and it has perfected itself over the last 40,000 years. I mean, not everything works for the best but the system works well. We think we don’t need this naturally evolved system: breasts to feed babies, or body warmth to keep babies warm, etc.—instead we use formulas, cribs, playpens, DVDs during a car ride, Ho-Hos as bribes. (Don’t get me wrong, I’d do anything for a Ho-Ho, it’s just that they’re evil!) Commodity culture drives a lot of our ideas about what children need. and while this is with the best of intentions, it is “purchased programming” that is “safe and structured,” and I think children are much more in need of unstructured exploration and creative improvisation… Turn off the TV and the <b>Baby Einstein</b> video and let the kid move around outside and track an ant for ten minutes…
Sometimes I think the only reason we have things like “educational mobiles” is because we leave the kid in a crib for 45 minutes instead of carrying them with us like humans have done for ages.
We think we are protecting our kids and giving them the competitive edge and I am saying that I think that should be examined and rethought.

What are some positive paths through all of this?

Get rid of your TV; put recess back in the schools; have real health and gym classes; do long- term breast feeding (minimum one year – max three years); let your kids get dirty!; cut out the antibacterial gel (there is a price to pay for all this SAFETY!); let the kids play outside, in your backyard, a park, etc.; let the kid get wild with their imagination; and keep off the growth-laden, GMO foods.

This sounds like sound advice for anyone!

Yeah, we’re all kind of a part of the same microcosm. We’re all exposed to the same environmental and psychological pressures and consumer culture, the negative effects of a compromised immune system, stress—and imposed safety measures are just more acute for special ed. kids.

Paula Ladin can be reached at paulaladin2[at]yahoo[.]com.