Inclusive education: Why it matters — and why N.J. ranks last in nation on implementation

Recent panel discussion at Fiserv shows just how far state has to go — and why we need to

Halfway through the panel discussion — 15 minutes into learning why an inclusive education for those with disabilities is not only a good thing, but a mandatory civil right for all — Fred Buglione, the CEO for the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education, dropped a little knowledge that no one saw coming.

New Jersey is last in the country when it comes to providing inclusive education for those with disabilities and special needs — as defined by the idea that those students should be a part of the general education program for 80% or more of the school day.

All that talk about New Jersey having the best K-12 education system in the country? It’s true on many metrics, but not this one.

All those jokes about schools in the South being in the race for the bottom — and that’s why companies should set up shop here? It’s true in many categories, but not this one.

“We’re the only state in the country that includes less than 50% of our students with disabilities,” Buglione said. “We exclude more students with disabilities than we include.”

The audience at the Fiserv event was stunned.

Then Buglione dropped another factoid: New Jersey isn’t working to get out of that last-place position.

“If you go back 20 years and look at our inclusion rate, it’s 45% of students are included with gen ed students 80% of the day or more,” he said. “Twenty years later, it’s 45%.

“Over that same period of time, the inclusion rate across the country has gone from about 37% to 66%.

“This national percentage goes up a half a point or a point every year, it has been doing so for the last 20 years, will probably do so for the next 20 years (and) New Jersey has sat still.”

Then there’s this: Other countries are doing it better. Australia has made it a goal that by that by 2050 there will be no segregated placements for students nationwide, he said. And, in Italy, 99% of kids with disabilities have been included in general education classrooms since the early 1990s.

“If anybody says, ‘This isn’t possible,’ buy me a plane ticket and we’ll go show you,” Buglione said.

If you’re a parent who has spent years advocating with a school district about the rights of a child with special needs, this — unfortunately — is not a surprise.

The good news: People such as Buglione, Michele Gardener (the executive director of NJCIE) and Kat Kelley (the executive director of Include NJ) — and countless others — are working to change that.

Buglione, Gardener and Kelley spoke on a recent panel on the subject in Berkeley Heights at the flagship location in the state for Fiserv, a company that is a leader in New Jersey in hiring those with special needs.

ROI-NJ served as the moderator.

Anyone who has a child with special needs knows that what you know about your rights is the biggest tool in a fight for more opportunity.

So, here’s more from the panel, presented in a modified Q&A format (that means we edited down some of the answers) that helps get the information out.

ROI-NJ: When we say inclusive education, what does that mean? Why should it be the standard?

Need help?

A look at the panelists and how to reach them:

  • Fred Buglione, CEO, N.J. Coalition for Inclusive Education
  • Michele Gardener, executive director, N.J. Coalition for Inclusive Education
  • Katherine Kelley, executive director, Include NJ

Reach Buglione and Gardener here; reach Kelley here. They are eager to help you.

Fred Buglione: Inclusive education simply is when students with disabilities have access and support in any and every classroom, in every and any sport, in any and club and afterschool activity. It is the foundation of a welcoming society.

Most people have experienced inclusive education. If you were not told: ‘No, you can’t take this elective,’ ‘No, you can’t join this sport,’ ‘No, you can’t go into this classroom — you have to go into that small classroom down the hall or in the annex or in the basement,’ then you have experienced inclusive education. That’s what we seek to do or to make available to all students.

ROI: We’ve detailed how New Jersey does not do that well. That’s a teachable moment; how does a school district start the process of making that a reality?

Michele Gardener: A district needs to start by looking at where they are now — and where do they see themselves in 5-10 years. Oftentimes, this starts with developing a vision: Where do we want our students to be when they leave us and they become adults — and they no longer have access to all of those entitlements that public schools offer?

Once that vision is developed, it’s developing an action plan that needs to be more than just the special education or the Special Services Department action plan — it needs to be a part of the strategic plan for a school district. Then you get our stakeholders involved, you get parents involved — and we build this system of support to push that systemic change forward.

We are looking to create general education programs and general education classrooms that provide a rich, engaging, meaningful education for all students in that classroom.

ROI: You mentioned life after school — why is it important to build a classroom experience based on future-life experiences?

Kat Kelley: We are preparing our kids through general education for the society that we want. Our (special education) kids aren’t going to go off into a special place to work, or to a special post office that they’re going to have for themselves, they’re going to go out into the world that we are creating for them. That world should be reflected in the general education classroom.

The first step with that is to understand that you learn much more in your general education classroom than academics. There’s social development happening. So, it’s not just simply for students with special needs, it’s for everyone that’s in that classroom.

ROI: This all sounds great. But, as anyone with a special needs child knows, this usually is not the reality. What do you do when you meet resistance?

Know your rights

You (and your child) have more rights than you know. The state put together this 69-page pamphlet to specifically address parental rights.

MG: I’m very transparent about this. And I have been through my tenure as an administrator in the (Berkeley Heights) public schools — it is a really tall mountain to climb. There’s this giant boulder that we’re pushing up that mountain in New Jersey when it comes to trying to include students with disabilities and doing it well — and doing it meaningfully and doing it thoughtfully.

But, the process of systemic change really starts with establishing why we are doing the things we are doing. It’s very hard to argue against civil rights. And it’s very hard to argue against including people and including diversity in our classrooms.

ROI: Walk us through the discussion.

MG: When I was working in the public schools, we started with just a full year of training and discussion, answering questions, talking about the law, talking about the research that supports doing this in our public schools, talking about the research about adults with disabilities, and what does their life look like post-high school? What are they doing after high school? There’s an extremely high unemployment rate for them. And that’s unacceptable; that would be unacceptable for any group of people. Yet, that’s still our reality for adults with disabilities.

It’s having very honest and raw conversations with people. In New Jersey, one of the biggest hurdles is changing mindset. There’s a deeply held mindset that separate is not only equal, but separate is better. And it couldn’t be more incorrect.

ROI: Here’s the ‘Yes, but …’ question. What do you do when no one wants to listen — let alone create a vision. Is it time for legal action?

KK: I can start with what my experience was as a parent. It’s how I became executive director of Include NJ. If you’re just running into a wall, right? You’re not getting what you need from the school district, you’re not getting the cooperation you need. You need someone with you that knows the system.

Organizations like Include NJ will step in and have a professional advocate there to help you navigate those difficulties and those barriers and those roadblocks. They also work directly with the school district or school, not in an adversarial role, but in coming together to ensure that the student gets the education that, not only they deserve, but that they’re entitled to.

Everyone is allowed to have someone with them at all of these meetings who knows the legalese and someone who knows the law.

FB: I’ll add that many of the advocates that Include NJ hires are retired special ed directors from the state of New Jersey. So, they know the law, they know the code — and they more likely than not will know the special ed director that you’re dealing with, which allows them to talk to them in a different way, hopefully avoiding having to hire a lawyer.

ROI: Are there any other options?

FB: There are districts in almost every county who are doing it well, who are willing to take those chances, who are willing to try and support students in in general and settings with all the appropriate supports available to bring to bear into those situations.

We have seen several instances where districts who are refusing to provide inclusive education will allow for out-of-district placement in another public school setting. We’ve been involved with that. recommendations and other things, quite a number of times. And it can be really breathtaking and astonishing to see the transformation of a student who moves from one other school district to one that supports inclusive education.

The student was thriving, and the student was happy. All because the student walked into a public school that said, ‘We accept you, we welcome you and we’re going to include you in everything.’

ROI: Last question: Give one thought to a parent out there who is struggling to find an inclusive setting for their child?

KK: Reach out. There are tons of agencies out there that are willing to help. I would start with your special education parent advisory groups, SEPAG, as we call them. They’re going to refer you to an organization like Include NJ that is going to support you and give you direction on where to go next.

MG: I would say sit down with your local school district administration, child study team, the people that are that are kind of the power brokers around those inclusive decisions, and have a truly heart-to-heart open, honest conversation. It has been remarkable to me over the last 25 years, how impactful just an open, honest conversation can be and the change that it can lead to.

FB: You’re not alone. You may think you’re alone, but you’re not alone. There are hundreds of parents asking the same questions, looking for the same help. You’re not alone. Reach out to us, reach out to Kat. We’re here to help and we’re here to connect.