Redesigning Social Work in Inclusive Schools

By Pryor, Carolyn B.; Kent, Carol et al. | Social Work, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Redesigning Social Work in Inclusive Schools


Pryor, Carolyn B., Kent, Carol, McGunn, Charlene, LeRoy, Barbara, Social Work


The inclusive education movement is based on the philosophy that children with disabilities benefit when they are educated in age-appropriate general classroom settings. In recent years, many schools have experimented with having a few "included" students - ones who had been in segregated settings - reassigned to a neighborhood school at the parents' request. As more and more successful outcomes have been reported (Stainback & Stainback, 1991; Villa, Thousand, Stainback, & Stainback, 1992; York, Vandercook, MacDonald, Heise-Neff, & Caughey, 1992), the movement has grown.

Some education leaders have called for the integrated delivery of all related services (Craig & Haggart, 1994; Thousand & Villa, 1990). Some have proposed that support specialists such as school social workers operate in "transdisciplinary teams" in which role functions are blurred (McDonnell & Hardman, 1989). Others have called for the merger of special and general education (Sapon-Shevin, 1988; Wang, Reynolds, & Walberg, 1986). In a position paper entitled Rights without Labels, the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, the National Association of School Psychologists, and NASW (1987) called for the provision of support services to all students with special needs regardless of qualification for special education. School social workers are challenged to rethink their methods of supporting students with special needs and to redesign their services to keep pace with accelerated changes in education philosophy and programming.

This article reviews the history of the inclusive education movement in the United States and in Michigan in particular. School social work practice vignettes illustrate the evolving role of the school social worker and describe strategies that social workers are using to prepare for, facilitate, implement, expand, and promote inclusive education.

Inclusive Education Movement

The current U.S. special education system was established by the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (P.L. 94-142), which requires that all children be educated in the least-restrictive environment. The act has made a continuum of education options available; programs range from full participation in general education programs with consultation provided by special education personnel to hospitalization. However, the system has increasingly drawn criticism for its enormous cost, questionable efficacy, and segregation of students with disabilities into stigmatizing settings.

In 1986 the U.S. Department of Education began providing funds to states for the implementation of systems change initiatives in special education. The intent of this strategy was to provide incentives and supports to increase the number of students being educated in general education settings and to stem the increasing number of students being referred to special education. While the federal funding program was encouraging increased integration of all students with disabilities, a growing body of research studies, model programs, and legal precedents were encouraging the full-time inclusion of students with disabilities in general education with support rather than more traditional mainstreaming or integration practices. In 1989 inclusion became a goal of the U.S. Department of Education's systems change efforts. Inclusive education was defined as the education of students with disabilities in age-appropriate general education classrooms with the support of special education.

That same year Michigan became the recipient of federal five-year systems change funding and began implementing inclusive education statewide. During the five years of implementation, 20 school districts served as model demonstration sites. More than 4,000 previously excluded students with various disabilities were included in general education settings and classes, elementary through postsecondary (LeRoy, 1993).

A major emphasis of the systems change process was the training of administrators, educators, support staff, paraprofessionals, and families.

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