Not all of a student’s education comes from a teacher.
Classrooms are often like melting pots, as children from different backgrounds and experiences learn valuable lessons from each other.
In Polk County Public Schools, nearly 76 percent of students with disabilities spend the majority of their day (at least 80 percent of their time in school each day) in the regular education classroom setting alongside their peers without disabilities, according to the most recent data and analysis on exceptional student education programs from the Florida Department of Education.
In this category of class time, the district is above the state average (73.72 percent) as well as other large districts in the area, such as Hillsborough (72.1 percent) and Pinellas (72.9 percent) counties.
Under federal law, school districts must provide instruction to students with disabilities in the least restrictive learning environment possible. In addition, research shows that students with disabilities perform better when they are in inclusive classrooms — a general education setting where students with disabilities are alongside peers without disabilities or exceptionalities.
“But, most importantly, it’s simply the right thing to do,” said Kimberly Steinke, assistant superintendent of learning support. “All students should be treated with fairness, dignity and respect. Students with disabilities who can thrive in general education classrooms should be allowed to do so. They should not be placed in a more restrictive environment if they don’t need it.”
Winter Haven resident Tracey Porter said her son, Joshua, 15, has benefited greatly from his years spent in general education classrooms, first at Oscar J. Pope Elementary and currently at Southwest Middle. She described Joshua as a hardworking student who makes the honor roll. He is autistic and has apraxia — a disability that impacts his mental processing and ability to communicate.
Over the years, the general education classroom has helped Joshua learn important life skills, like how to handle social awkwardness, Porter said.
“He works on his social cues, which helps a lot,” she said. “The kids encourage him, and he interacts with them. He keeps up with his peers when it comes to school work, and they even sometimes come to him for help.”
Her son’s teachers have also told Porter that they’ve appreciated learning different ways to teach and meet his needs.
“I’ve had several teachers tell me that Joshua makes them better teachers,” she said. “He works so hard. His teachers have said they wish they had a whole classroom full of Joshuas. That brings tears to my eyes to hear that.”
Students without disabilities can also benefit from inclusive classrooms, Steinke said.
“They build meaningful friendships that they might not otherwise be able to forge if they weren’t brought together,” Steinke said. “They gain a deeper understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of diversity and individual differences. They learn together and teach each other.”
A student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) will detail what supports are in place for the student with disabilities and what learning environment is appropriate. Some students might require more intensive support, and a self-contained Exceptional Student Education (ESE) classroom might be a better fit than a regular education classroom, Steinke said.
“We must review many factors before determining the learning environment,” Steinke said. “In general, the regular education classroom often works well for students with milder disabilities who demonstrate higher levels of independence, as well as an ability to communicate their needs and regulate their behavior.”
A team of people are responsible for putting together a student’s IEP. Team members include ESE professionals, school administrators and the student’s parents or guardians.
“The most important thing a parent can do is participate as an active member of their child’s IEP team,” Steinke said. “They know their children better than anyone else. We need them to stay involved, and if they have any requests or questions to ask for an IEP team meeting to discuss it.”
Porter agreed that her son’s IEP team has been essential to his success.
“They developed a plan with goals that could be met, gave him accommodations needed for him to succeed, saw his potential and most of all love him,” Porter said. “All of this is why Josh is where he is today. I am looking forward to that day when he walks down the aisle and receives his diploma.”
Photo: Tracy Porter with her son, Joshua