Nick Lanzi’s parents, Carolyn and Barry Lanzi, help their son prepare for graduation from Vestavia Hills High School Thursday. Nick Lanzi is among several students with special needs graduating from area high schools this spring after years in inclusive settings.(The Birmingham News / Joe Songer)
Don’t tell Nick Lanzi what he doesn’t know.
Don’t tell the new Vestavia Hills High School graduate what he can’t know.Because he knows better.
When doctors diagnosed Lanzi with Down syndrome when he was just a few days old, they told his parents he would never have intelligence surpassing that of a 3-year-old.
But when his 11th-grade American-history teacher passed him a copy of a test made specifically for “special needs” students, he asked for a “real” test instead.
He took it. He made a 96, the highest grade in the class. He made his parents, his teacher and everybody in the class proud.
Lanzi knows he is different. He just knows a different kind of different.
Lanzi, 19, is part of the first generation of special-needs students, including many graduating this spring, who have been taught in regular classrooms their entire time in school. Inclusion is a practice in which mentally or physically disabled students spend most or all of their time learning alongside typical students.
“Inclusion works best when you have a good team of administrators, special educators, good accepting classroom teachers and good peers,” said Carolyn Lanzi, Nick Lanzi’s mother. “He has benefited so much from inclusion, as much from the socialization as the academics. I’m not going to say we haven’t had stumbling blocks, but the parent has to be the advocate.”
Inclusion is a still-growing concept — one that’s been around since the 1970s, but became the norm only in the mid-1990s, advocates say. Research has shown that most physically and mentally disabled students do better academically and socially when with peers. Segregating a child from a regular classroom, research shows, may do nothing but harm the child’s self-esteem and hinder the learning process.
Advocates contend that children with disabilities can be successfully educated in regular classroom settings if the right aides and supplemental services are provided.
“There are much higher expectations and less assumptions when a special-needs child is in a regular classroom,” said Susan Ellis, community living coordinator for The Arc of Shelby County. Ellis’ own son, Matthew, has Down syndrome. “Certainly the social skills that come from inclusion are important as well. A lack of social skills is what prevents adults with severe disabilities from being successful.”
Special-needs students are placed in what is called an Individualized Education Program. It includes a written statement of special education and related services the child will need in order to be properly educated, as well as any modifications to the regular curriculum.
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, as amended in 2004, does not require inclusion. Instead, the law requires that children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment appropriate” to meet their “unique needs.”
Inclusion, advocates say, allows students with physical and mental disabilities to experience all aspects of regular school life.
If Lanzi is a measure, the process works.
Everyone at Vestavia Hills, it seems, knows Lanzi. During his four years of high school, he would walk the halls between classes high-fiving friends. He was inducted into the Student Government Association and was named Most Admired by his peers for Who’s Who among his senior class.
The story is much the same for Whitley Means Ware, a 20-year-old with Down syndrome who graduated from Carver High School on Tuesday night.
Not only was she in the regular classroom, allowing her to make friends and learn from her peers, but she was on the varsity cheerleading squad the last two years of high school.
“It helped a lot with her social skills,” said her mother, Brenda Ware. “She is so outgoing anyway, but being around others helped her with her communication skills. Everybody from the teachers to the custodians to the cafeteria workers know her and love her.”
That’s not to say that inclusion always works. It is up to parents and school administrators whether they want their child in a regular classroom setting or to be segregated in a special-education classroom. Many special-needs children do both.
Just ‘there in body’
Still, many schools simply place special-needs children in the back of a regular classroom and give them “baby work,” says Deborah Mattison, a Birmingham lawyer who specializes in special education and disabilities.
“A lot of times, kids can be dumped into a classroom with an aide, and the aide does all the work for them,” she said. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. It’s about redesigning the curriculum to make it more functional for the child. Sometimes the child is there in body but isn’t really part of the class.”
When implemented correctly, she said, inclusion works. The social skills alone, she said, are invaluable.
“Oftentimes when these kids leave school, the only people who hang out with them are family members and people who are paid to be with them,” she said. “Inclusion allows these children to make friends, and that’s important.”
Special education has come a long way since the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed in 1975. Prior to that law, students with special needs were frequently not allowed to enroll in public school. The law was reauthorized over the years and was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Segregating special-needs children into separate classrooms or schools was common then, Ellis said. But that began to change in the 1990s, when research began showing benefits to inclusion.
While there still are children in segregated classrooms, inclusion is becoming the norm, especially since the No Child Left Behind law was enacted in 2001, Mattison said.
That law states that all children must be educated by highly qualified teachers and requires all students — regardless of their disabilities — to meet state goals on standardized tests.
That caused school systems throughout the country to turn their attention to children with disabilities, by developing and implementing strategies to move those students forward academically.
“Education has come so far,” Lanzi said, thankful for the advocates who she says paved the way for her son. “Unless they’re given the opportunity, you don’t know what they’re capable of. You can’t just close the door on them.”