Molly Jo Alaimo stood at the front of the classroom, reviewing a math lesson with her fifth-graders.
“Make sure you line up your place values,” she said, as the children copied an addition problem. “Thumbs up if you have the sum.”
One by one, most of the children raised their thumbs. As they did, Marisa Maskin, a special-education teacher, looked around for anyone who was struggling with the three-digit addition problem. When she saw a child who didn’t get it, she crouched beside his desk, whispering tips to help him understand.
Two of the 26 students in the fifth-grade class at New Traditions Elementary in the North of Panhandle area have learning disabilities.
Instead of spending their days sequestered in special classes, this year they are part of an effort by the San Francisco Unified School District to keep them with their peers.
“They are part of the classroom,” said New Traditions Principal Maria Luz Agudelo.
In the past, Agudelo said, special-education students would spend most of their time in a separate room with Maskin. That isolation carried a stigma, Agudelo said, and the students missed out on socialization.
This year, teachers report that they are sitting with their peers at lunch and playing with them at recess.
District officials said mainstreaming as many special-education students as possible has long been a goal, but the new approach also is a response to a 2010 audit commissioned by the Board of Education.
The report called the old system “outdated” and found it inconsistent with the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that requires special-needs students to be educated in the “least restrictive environment” their disabilities allow.
This year, seats in regular kindergarten, sixth-grade and ninth-grade classrooms were set aside districtwide for special-education students.
New Traditions, which has a higher proportion of special-education students than other schools — about 14 percent — expanded the plan to all grades.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Cecelia Dodge, SFUSD’s assistant superintendent for special education. “Most parents of children with disabilities want their children educated in the regular classroom, in the same rigorous, engaging curriculum as nondisabled peers, with accommodations or modifications when needed.”
Though district officials reported inclusion is popular with most parents, some have resisted. Parents have sued the district to keep their disabled children in special classes, and this month a judge decided in favor of a group of parents who wanted the district to continue a contract with a privately run special school.
“Parents of children with disabilities are equal partners in determining the education setting,” Dodge said. “Many students with disabilities still require that some or all of their education happens in a special-education setting.”
Schools around the state
Special-education students are a significant percentage of the state’s children.
6,383: Special-education students in San Francisco Unified School District
11.4: Percentage of special-education students in San Francisco
10,186: Special-education students in San Mateo County
11.1: Percentage of special-education students in San Mateo County
678,929: Special-education students in California
10.9: Percentage of special-education students statewide
Source: California Department of Education