Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Segregation vs Inclusion

It isn’t a news flash that I’m a big fan of The Wire. This week marked the second-last episode of the second-last season, and I must say, I still haven’t figured out how they’ll wrap it up next episode.

Oh, earlier on, I thought I knew how things were leaning, but there have been too many twists along the way. And that isn’t what I want to sort my thoughts on today.

Specifically, what’s been on my mind is the school experiment, the segregated class for the real tough kids. This isn’t a new concept. It’s been done, perhaps not for the exact same reasons, but with one essential goal in common: to remove kids so that the group who can focus can learn. And the kids that can’t participate in that regular environment get a different structure, where it is believed they can learn.

I was segregated for part of my school experience, actually. It was segregation inverted. Termed gifted/excelled kids from a number of schools were pooled together to work on focus projects, removing us from mainstream classrooms.

The other kind of segregation I’ve seen is removing kids with special needs so that they don’t slow down the others.

When I was in college this was a subject of debate. People who believe in inclusion believe that children learn modeled behaviour, and that by allowing children with special needs/behaviour problems to be exposed to “normal” children it has the ‘pull up’ effect – they’ll learn how to behave appropriately.

Segregationists believe that it is impossible for teachers to address an extremely wide range of skill level within the room and that disruptions from those who can’t function to “normal” level (I use the term loosely – what’s normal for one class may not be normal for another, as any of us who’ve worked in schools know!) inhibit the learning process for all.

Five years ago I worked in a very tough environment. Out of a group of 27 children we had one with extreme physical and emotional disorders who, despite age, was officially diagnosed because of the severity of her physical condition, one who was ‘unofficially’ diagnosed ODD* and CD* (unofficial because they won’t label children officially before a certain age where these psychological disorders are concerned) and three other children who required educational intervention. In kindergarten.

This didn’t include the kids who were behaviour problems.

What we did was, we separated out the ten most problematic children. Instead of one group of 27, they had their group, we had ours, but for part of the day only. The children did spend a few hours each day in the larger group. I was with the ten.

Watching The Wire this season has reminded me of that experience. This was the program I worked in that had the kid who made me have to get medical treatment. He’s the one who beat another staff over the head with a wooden board. He was five years old, btw.

And we all knew not to turn our back on him.

This isn’t even touching on the emotional issues of the larger group as a whole. When one child’s dad got out of prison the child started engaging in extreme behaviour, beyond what we’d seen up to then, and it wasn’t hard to figure out there was a sexual abuse scenario at play.

You know what’s funny? From early on this season I’ve known Michael (on The Wire) was sexually abused. Kevin only figured it out when Chris kicked Michael’s abuser to death. Have I worked with too many of these kids? Maybe.

Segregation vs inclusion is a long-standing debate in educational circles, and there are no easy answers. It’s the kind of thing that journalists can stir up trouble over, because no matter what you do, there will always be people quick to judge. In fact, in my situation, we dealt with one big group for several months before we won the battle to split them. Yes, I was one of the two instigators behind it, along with the other staff who worked with that group with me.

Thing was, the other staff didn’t want these kids. And, training levels being what they were there, they weren’t as highly trained as my partner in crime and I were. We wanted the hard cases, they didn’t. The powers that were, in that case, eventually gave in. And it didn’t happen overnight, but we did create a positive environment for those kids, where we didn’t simply move from episode to episode but actually did some really cool things.

We made progress.

You know what was interesting? Because our kids were in a space adjoining the room the ‘main’ group used, we could see what was happening on their end as well. And guess what? All their problems didn’t go away when we took our kids out. Yes, it was better. Just not perfect.

I think that was the biggest lesson learned. We actually had such a depth of kids with issues that the ones that screamed/kicked/cried the loudest got all the energy of all of the staff. There were a lot of other children with issues being completely ignored.

And that’s where the other surprise came in. Every time one of our kids moved on we had kids from the other group asking to be moved to ours.

From all external appearances, being in our group wasn’t a compliment. The parents/guardians got it, the minute they saw the list of kids in our group. Every staff in the place got it.

In our case the kids were young. They didn’t get it. All they got was that coming in the morning used to be a source of anxiety and additional stress. That changed to running in anxiously and not wanting to leave at the end of the day.

Controversial? Definitely. The right thing to do? I believe so.

Education can’t be so narrowly construed that it only applies to book learning and passing provincials or state tests. This is part of the problem with the educational system as a whole. The program is structured to that mid-level average child, when the reality is that more and more, children aren’t even in a mental place to learn.

Most of the schools I’ve been in had food banks for the kids coming to school on an empty stomach. There’s hardly been a program I’ve worked with that didn’t have kids in social services. In fact, I actually knew a boy who was so severe in his behaviour he got kicked out of kindergarten…

People have to start thinking outside boxes. I’d bet a program like the one being proposed on The Wire would never, in the real world, be officially sanctioned, not by most cities. Yet the reality is, my specific focus in my work was with children who needed intervention and assistance. And nine times out of ten the main class teachers wanted us to go out of the main classroom. I was free to use whatever means I felt were effective to work on targeted goals.

Isn’t that the same thing?

* Oppositional Defiance Disorder and Conflict Disorder - in short, this child was violent and not predisposed to respect authority. I'm not saying this, but a few hundred years ago people probably would have thought this child was possessed.

You guys have all proven me wrong about blogs selling books. Great discussion yesterday, very interesting story.

New post is up at In For Questioning.

I leave you with Les trois finalistes pour homme de l'année from Aunt Jacinthe. Don’t worry if you don’t speak French – you’ll be able to figure it out quickly.


John McFetridge said...

Someone once said, "It's very difficult to change a flat tire on a moving car."

But you have to try.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That's a great expression. And it about sums it up.

JamesO said...

I'm woefully ill-equipped to comment about education, having been sent at an early age to very expensive boarding school, from which I emerged relatively unscathed. The Horse Doctor, however, is very scathing about the comprehensive education provided by the state here in the UK, saying it works only for the mediocre.

I'm a great believer in segregation by ability, but I'm also not a snob when it comes to dealing with people who haven't read Descartes but know how to fix my washing machine. I suspect the push for comprehensive education comes from a desire to create a classless society - in itself no bad thing - but it ignores the fact that different children have wildly different abilities and need completely different levels of teaching. I'll be controversial and suggest that part of the reason for the rise in numbers of 'special needs' children is that their parents, and in some cases their grandparents, suffered at the hands of a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided comprehensive education experiment. With each generation the problem grows.

I could never be a teacher.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"well-intentioned but ultimately misguided comprehensive education experiment"

We don't even want to talk about those. There have been some horrid things done, which is where John's saying comes in. You try something and if it doesn't work, you change it. But there are still the kids who went through the trial who might be messed up as a result.

James, this is why I'm not in education anymore!

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, people have a hard time with the idea that we can't stop the world while we figure it out. Whatever situation they're in, the kids keep growing.

They can be awfully resiliant, though. I know people who've gone through some really crappy stuff and are quite happy and well-adjusted and others who had, "all the benefits" as they say, and are just jerks.

Baby steps, people, baby steps.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That's very true as well, John. Of course, it goes to environment vs heredity as well, another great debate.

One thing people never consider is that if the staff feels incapable of working with the children in the environment they have, then what's 'right' and 'wrong' stops being the most important factor. If the staff feel defeated, then can they do any of the kids any good? I know when we split our group every staff member was happier. That translates positively over to the kids.