Academic journal article International Journal of Whole Schooling

An Appreciative Inquiry into the Circle of Friends Program: The Benefits of Social Inclusion of Students with Disabilities

Academic journal article International Journal of Whole Schooling

An Appreciative Inquiry into the Circle of Friends Program: The Benefits of Social Inclusion of Students with Disabilities

Article excerpt

This study describes a research partnership among university, state legislature, and public schools to examine benefits of social inclusion of students with disabilities assisted by the Circle of Friends Program (COFP). School-university research partnerships are often viewed as effective ways to improve services to students who receive services from special education (Ainscow, Booth, & Dyson, 2004).

Nearly 14% of all students in the United States receive some form of special education assistance in accordance with federal legislation, most recently reauthorized in 2004 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA)(Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 2004). Students who qualify to receive services under IDEIA are frequently referred to as students with disabilities. Of these students, African American and Hispanic students are more likely than other groups to be classified as having a disability (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2007; Utley, Kozleski, Smith, & Draper, 2002). In effect, African American students constitute approximately 16% of the school aged population in urban schools, yet they represent more than 30% of the special education population (A. Smith & Kozleski, 2005).

Substantial effort appears to be placed by educators on increasing the achievement levels of students with disabilities as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The achievement scores of students classified in special education are part of the overall assessment of a school's performance indicating whether the school met adequate yearly progress (AYP). In effect, there is greater emphasis on inclusion, based on assisting students with disabilities to meet the achievement goals specified in NCLB. There is a growing body of scholarly work related to the academic benefits resulting from inclusion of students with disabilities into the general (regular) education classroom. There also appears to be limited but emerging empirical research on the benefits of promoting a positive social inclusion experience for students with disabilities with their general education peers (Harrower & Dunlap, 2001; Lindsay, 2007). Examples of research on social inclusion describe those who are pro active in facilitating the inclusion process (Henderson, 2006); examine the efficacy of mentoring as a helpful method of supporting social inclusion (Newburn & Shiner, 2006); and, describe the use parental social networks to improve their children's special education services for children (Munn-Joseph & Gavin-Evans, 2008). We sought to extend these and similar studies by continuing to focus on the benefits of social inclusion of students with disabilities.

Purpose of Study

One program that focuses on broadening the social inclusion of students with disabilities by expanding the circles of their social relationships is the Circle of Friends Program (COFP). The intent of the COFP is to help students with disabilities develop social relationships with general education students within the school context (McCurdy, 2005). An independent research team comprised of university faculty and school practitioners was asked by a Midwestern state legislator to initiate research into the efficacy of the COFP for a presentation to the state legislature. The purpose of our research was to describe the perspectives of the sponsors, peer mentors, and parents of students with disabilities in the COFP based on their level of participation in the program in a dynamic urban/suburban context in a Midwestern state where the majority of the population of the urban school district is now a minority student population.

Literature Review

The COFP increases the cultural proficiency of a school's organization. The increase in cultural proficiency among administrators, teachers, and general education students creates an environment where students with disabilities feel a part of the normal activities of school life (American Psychological Association, May 2003). …

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