“I remember when it was one teacher tapping me on the shoulder to bring their class in for reading with the special-education students,” she said. “It was done in isolation. “Now all my teachers know that they have to participate in integration and they want to. Teachers meet together for faculty meetings and discuss the kids’ progress, students are together at assemblies and they travel to each others’ classes.” Lessons go both ways Now while the special-needs children are gaining access into the world of their peers, it is the able-bodied kids who learn the most, Abril said. “By the time these kids are graduating, they have had more contact with special-needs people than some people have their whole life. They will approach special-needs children when they are in junior high and high school and hopefully it will be an experience they will carry on with them for their entire life.” Like a protective mother bear, Carol Posthumous carefully stood watch over her special-ed pupils as a boisterous group of third-graders read to them. “Teachers will bring their classes in here every so often to spend reading time with my kids,” Posthumous said. “If you watched them before they came in, you can see that they feel the increased energy in the room.” A special-education teacher for the past 12 years, Posthumous said Valley View has given her kids a chance to feel a part of their school community – something she feels is invaluable to their development. “Integration is just another way for them to experience sensory activities, experience life, experience the real world and be out in public. That’s what you want to do with them. You don’t want them sheltered; you want them out and accepted,” she said. It’s tough for some teachers and children to work with her kids, Posthumous said. They don’t speak, so it can feel like they’re not listening or otherwise connecting. Her advice before dealing with such special-needs kids is to drop any preconceieved notions. “With our kids, you can’t assume that they’re not hearing, they’re not understanding. You have to assume they are listening. They are with us to whatever extent they can.” Erin Spalding, who teaches a regular fifth-grade class, said working with special-needs children has made her look at options. “I love my regular-ed kids, but there is just something about these kids that’s special,” Spalding said. Spalding has two special-ed pupils in her class each day for at least an hour and sends several of her kids to work in special-education classrooms throughout the week. The growth she’s seen in her mainstream kids is almost as impressive as the progress made by her special-education students, she said. “Right now, there are about five children who, I could tell you, will be working with special education when they grow up. They are the kids who want to be with the special-needs kids all the time, even when there isn’t an assignment involved, and that is what it’s all about.” New friends Fifth-grader Delaney Bush has spent every recess for the past two years volunteering with these special kids. Early on, the little brown-haired girl got hooked on the reaction she could get from her new friends. “They just laugh and gleam when you give them attention,” Delaney said. She has developed an especially close relationship with 11-year-old Ashley Renteria. Therapists and aides had tried and tried to get Ashley to perform sit-ups to strengthen her back, but to no avail. One day, Delaney dropped something and dived backward in a sit-up motion to retrieve it. Ashley broke out in chuckles and since then, an abdominal workout has become a part of the two tweens’ routine. Some of Delaney’s friends don’t get it – so she suggests they try it out. “A few of my friends ask me why I spend so much time with the kids, but I really like it. I think they enjoy it when kids their own age talk to them because they don’t get that a lot.” More to be done One special-education advocate gives kudos to Valley View’s integration program, but said it’s not enough. “It’s a great initial step, but what we need to do is create schools and classrooms where all children belong together all the time,” said June Downing, a professor of special education at California State University, Northridge. “If you let these kids in as visitors, they will always be the kids that don’t belong.” Downing, who has written several books on the rights of students with disabilities to be integrated into general education classrooms, said the laws in California, dating back to 1975, clearly describe integration as a goal in special education. In California, the goal now is 80 percent integration for students with disabilities into general-education classrooms. “Research shows that if you have children together who have all the same problems, it is really hard for them to learn social skills and communication skills,” Downing said. “It is very easy to lower the expectation for these kids.” Downing said studies have also revealed the benefits of integration for able-bodied children. “For the children without disabilities, they gain sensitivity, an understanding and appreciation of differences, and they learn problem-solving by finding ways to include their different classmates,” she added. “It really is a civil-rights movement, just like it was for race at one time. We wouldn’t partially integrate kids by race today, would we?” Working toward goal Ralph Scott, manager of the California Department of Education unit in charge of monitoring special education, acknowledged that while there is a state goal, it is exactly that – a goal. “Kids have to have access to their nonhandicapped peers and cannot be isolated, but it also depends on what services are needed for the child and what their individualized education plan says,” Scott said. Scott said federal and state standardized testing also is pushing the need for integration, but it can be challenging. “A lot of it has do with the culture of the school. Some are very open, and some aren’t.” Abril admits that the road to integration wasn’t easy. “I do not have a special-education background,” the principal said. “It was a big paradigm shift for me and there was a learning process.” But the work has paid off. “The results have far exceeded my expectation,” Abril said. “Do I think we will ever be a 100 percent integrated school? Probably not. But we are taking steps toward that direction. “By far, this is the best thing we have ever done.” email@example.com (661) 257-5254160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! “We used to have another school across the hall with its own teachers, principals and office staff, and now we are one, created with an ideal of 100 percent integration participation,” Valley View Principal Gail Abril said. Before the merger, the Los Angeles County Office of Education ran the regional education program for severely disabled children like Jeremy, kids who were isolated from other children by their disabilities. Local schools and parent advocates decided they wanted to take back their special-education program. Each elementary school district took in a specific area of disability – Valley View in the Sulphur Springs School District educates the severely disabled and medically fragile children. Despite state legislation supporting the integration of children with disabilities into mainstream classrooms, many special-education students are still separated from the other kids. That split convinced Abril to make her school a model for blending the two. NEWHALL – As he slowly lifted the basketball, the boy’s fingers tensed. His arms lifted for the launch and his lips curled into a smile. Claps and whistles followed from the crowd, sharing a piece of this accomplishment. Playing catch is more than a game for Jeremy Chalebek. A few months ago, this 11-year-old could barely hold a ball. A brain tumor when Jeremy was just 7 weeks old left him with multiple disabilities – he can’t talk, he uses a wheelchair and he’s developmentally delayed. But the hours Jeremy has spent playing catch as part of his daily interaction with able-bodied clasmates were on full display one sunny Thursday at Valley View Elementary School in Newhall, where educators are breaking ground with innovative programs that blend special education with mainstream learning.