Special Education: An Integral Part of Small Schools in High Schools

Article excerpt

In this article, the authors discuss the small learning community or small high schools literature and the issues surrounding the dismantling of large high schools. Next, the authors describe inclusive education and its apparent relationship to the creation of small learning communities. The authors bridge the gap between the intent of small learning communities and secondary inclusive education. Then, the authors delineate the possible benefits of explicitly linking special education (i.e., secondary inclusive education) and small learning communities. Finally, several research implications of making a link between inclusive education and small learning communities are discussed.

Introduction

The comprehensive high school is a unique American invention that was designed to serve the educational needs of modern democratic society (Raga, 1998). Secondary education is one of the most highly prized aspects of American society. High schools are designed to educate students and prepare them for a life in the "adult world." Students entering high school have several "paths of instruction" (e.g., college preparatory courses or vocational training, etc.) that provide access to an assortment of opportunities after graduation. Comprehensive high schools follow several common practices. First, students can choose from an academic or vocational focus. Second, some students may take advanced academic courses, while others may take remedial courses to help ameliorate learning difficulties. Finally, students who complete a required course sequence graduate and receive a diploma (Chalkier, Haynes, & Smith, 1999). The diploma serves as a standard, signifying minimal competence to enter post-secondary education or the world of competitive employment.

Comprehensive high schools provide students with a vast array of course offerings (e.g., foreign language, home economics, etc.) and extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, clubs, etc.). In addition, high schools have a distinctive "presence" in most communities. Many members of the community are proud of the "look and feel" of the high school and express this civic pride with clothing, slogans, or even direct financial support to sport teams or clubs. In short, "big" comprehensive high schools have a long history in this country (Hammack, 2004). In spite of the perceived benefits of large high schools, school size is being called into question. The conversion of large high schools into small focused learning environments is gaining currency as an education reform strategy in communities across the United States (Steinberg & Allen, 2002).

The structure and organization of large comprehensive high schools makes them prone to a host of problems, including disengagement, violence, and fragmentation (Noguera, 2002). Large high schools can serve thousands of students and hold fast to strict curricular divisions that do not adequately serve the needs of students from diverse backgrounds or students with learning and behavioral difficulties (including students with significant disabilities). The infrastructure present in most comprehensive high schools makes the use of nontraditional instructional methods or modified curriculum difficult. The challenge for educators in large high schools is to develop a comprehensive support model that enables all students to benefit from educational opportunities and services leading to a fulfilling quality of life (Grant & Grant, 2002). In this article, the authors will briefly discuss the small schools reform literature and the issues surrounding the dismantling of large high schools. Next, the authors will describe inclusive education and its apparent relationship to the small school movement. Finally, the possible benefits of making explicit links between special education (i.e., inclusive education) and small schools are discussed.

Large Comprehensive High Schools

The American high school as we know it today, tuition-flee and district-based, with four grades, and dividing time and space into major and minor courses, is about 150 years old (McDonald, 2004). …