Thursday, December 17, 2009

Inclusion at the Expense of Quality Education: ACT NOW

On this blog, I typically write about issues that affect people with disabilities nationally and internationally. But sometimes, a local issue has national implications, and I want to inform you about something that's happening here in Maryland.

I've written before about the principle of inclusion -- an important principle for people with disabilities, to be sure, but one that officials can sometimes misuse to justify a "one-size-fits-all" educational approach for children whose needs vary greatly. So in an attempt to "include" children with very specialized needs, officials can make the mistake of providing less specialized and less effective instruction.

Last night, Ellen Widoff, the director of children's services for the Arc of Montgomery County, outlined a proposal that would essentially shut down one of the most effective early-intervention programs in the state, and possibly the nation. Watch her remarks here:

My daughter attended the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center (MPAC) for three years, beginning at age 2. She benefited from trained teachers, therapists, and aides and a facility specifically designed to accommodate the needs of their students. Led by an amazing principal who had run the school for about 20 years, the school provides intensive instruction that prepares each student for their next step. For 30 years, this "nonpublic" program has received referrals and funding from Montgomery County, because it has proven effective in giving these children the skills they need to succeed throughout the rest of their education. By intervening during the critical preschool years, the program improves the likelihood of the children's future success when they enter the public school system.

However, the superintendent of education's proposed budget recommends that the county place 36 students (not coincidentally, the same number of slots they currently refer to MPAC) into public elementary schools. There are so many reasons this does not make sense at this time. Among them:
- No Plan. They are talking about placing children in these elementary schools as early as February. No teachers have been hired, no staff or teachers have been trained, and no plan or curriculum is available for parents to review.
- No Savings. The budget does not reflect any cost savings, one reason that many states and counties are being forced to take drastic actions with their programs.
- MPAC works. There has never been a question that the program provides exceptional intervention for the children who need it most. Why would they toss out a proven model and an effective program just to try something new?
- No Collaboration. The staff and leadership at MPAC are valuable resources for the county. After a 30-year partnership, it's insulting for the county to turn its back on these talented, committed professionals and make this decision without even consulting with them.
- Too Risky. Inclusion is a positive goal. But it makes no sense to pursue that goal at the expense of not meeting the specialized, individualized needs of the county's children.

Wherever you live and whatever your advocacy priorities are, I urge you to contact the Board of Education, which will act on this in January, to express your support for specialized early intervention programs like MPAC. Tell them you oppose the proposed "realignment" of preschool programs unless there is evidence that the new programs can provide educational instruction at least as good as what children already have available through MPAC. Doing any less is putting these children's futures at risk.

You can send an email to the entire Board of Education at and call at 301-279-3617. For more information about individual members and their contact information, visit the Montgomery County Board of Education's website.

Please forward this post and this video to others. You can email the video with this YouTube URL:
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