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Helping Schools Address the Challenge of Inclusive Learning Environments

Students with disabilities have a legal right to receive appropriate special education and related services in inclusive settings alongside peers who are nondisabled

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Decisions regarding how and where best to serve students with disabilities must be determined on an individual basis. However, there is now a stronger call for districts to provide greater access for students with disabilities to the core curriculum and general education settings, implement evidence-based practices, improve efficiencies, and provide greater accountability on successful academic and post-school outcomes. Student placement decisions not only have a significant impact on the learning experience of children, but often come with a significant impact on state and local education budgets. It is for these and many other reasons that there is passionate debate on the issue of creating what is known as the “least restrictive environment” for students.

What is LRE?

In basic terms, least restrictive environment, or LRE, refers to the setting where a child with a disability can receive an appropriate education alongside nondisabled peers to the maximum extent possible. In other words, it is the “most appropriate place for a child with a disability that most closely approximates where the child, if not disabled, would be educated.” The core of the LRE provisions, a part of federal law since the inception of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, underscore the law’s strong preference for educating students with disabilities in the regular education environment.

Each public agency must ensure that:

  1. To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; and

  2. Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

While the law clearly favors integration, it also recognizes that for some students, more restrictive or segregated settings may be appropriate. IDEA mandates that the placement for a child with a disability should only be as restrictive as his/her needs require. Deciding to segregate students outside of the regular education classroom should only be considered if the student cannot be educated appropriately inside it with supplementary aids and services. Such placement considerations should be made on a case-by-case basis by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, whose task it is to evaluate the full continuum of options available and to determine the least restrictive environment for each student. The New Jersey state education code mirrors the LRE principles from IDEA and calls on each school district board of education to uphold the regulatory requirements.

Since the passage of IDEA over 40 years ago, students with disabilities have had the legal right to receive appropriate special education and related services, to the maximum extent possible, in inclusive settings alongside peers who are nondisabled. Research on the benefits of inclusion have consistently shown that when students with disabilities are included in general education classrooms, these students experience favorable academic, post-secondary, and social-emotional outcomes.

New Jersey has one of the lowest levels of inclusion in the nation. The percentage of New Jersey’s students with disabilities educated in general education classrooms 80 percent or more of the school day is nearly 20 percentage points lower than the national average, and students are placed in separate settings at more than twice the national average. New Jersey has a robust community of Approved Private Schools for Students with Disabilities (APSSDs).

In 2014, a settlement agreement closed a suit that was filed in 2007 by the state’s top disability advocates over the state’s alleged “failure to adequately ensure special education students were being served in the ‘least restrictive environment,’ as required by law.” Since that time, the state has worked to provide guidance, technical assistance, and supporting resources to local districts.

With school budget pressures continuing to build, many advocates point to the high costs of placing students out of district and the potential for over-classification as critical issues that must be addressed. When coupled with the call for improved accountability for more measureable student outcomes, it is a daunting challenge with sensitive implications for students, families, and school districts to be sure.

Districts across the state are in need of additional support as they work to meet the specific needs of children. As budget pressures continue to rise, there are calls for clearer measures of what success looks like for students with disabilities. On February 22, 2017, Public Consulting Group is proud to sponsor the first annual New Jersey Special Education Summit at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, New Jersey. Over 150 educators and administrators from more than 70 districts and charter schools will gather to learn from national experts and panels consisting of local peers about the resources available to them from the New Jersey Department of Education, other professional associations, and other services within the state.

A white paper that further delves into the challenges of LRE and what steps districts can take to address it, was commissioned specifically for this summit. That white paper will also be presented and discussed during this one-day summit. (Download whitepaper)

Dr. Jennifer Meller, former director of operations for the Office of Specialized Instructional Services for the School District of Philadelphia and current senior consultant with Public Consulting Group (PCG), leads the firm’s efforts in providing school districts with comprehensive special education program evaluations and technical assistance in the areas of staffing, stakeholder engagement, compliance, finance, data use, and best instructional practices for students with disabilities.

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