April 20, 2018 Blog, Special Education

A Truly Inclusive Classroom: Q&A with Karime Asaf

When Karime Asaf came to Moos Elementary School six years ago, she said it was a “good opportunity for us to reshape, transform and reimagine what the school needed to be moving forward.” We spoke with Karime about her re-imagined special education program, and her vision for Moos.

The Fund: Moos has a full inclusion model for special education services. Why was that important for you to introduce?

Karime Asaf: One of our students named Erin* taught us about how and why having an inclusion model is important. That little girl transformed our classrooms here. Erin is a student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for autism who could have qualified for a blended program in a separate school. In Kindergarten, she was not able to stay in school for more than two hours at a time, a few times a week. She could not stand being around other children. We tried having her in a separate resource setting, thinking “she needs a lot of support.” It’s what we’d been trained to believe special education services should look like. We were taught that if students need more support, they should be pulled out of the general classroom. She would climb on desks, scream and go into a panic all of the time. We didn’t put one and one together – that Erin’s tantrums were caused by having to transition to and from the resource classroom.

When Erin came back to try first grade with us, we decided to pilot a full inclusion model. Her special education teacher went to training for inclusion and starting coming in the classroom instead of taking Erin out. We saw amazing changes in Erin. Her behavioral issues have been minimized to almost non-existent and she self-regulates. She’s reading at grade level! Her life is changed because we kept her at Moos and integrated her in an inclusion setting, and now we’re making inclusion the standard at Moos.

The Fund: What does inclusion look like at Moos?

KA: We have co-teaching models with two teachers attending to one group of students in most grade levels. Both teachers are in charge of all of the students in the classroom. We see each classroom as one cohesive group of students — you really cannot tell who is a diverse learner. The model looks different based on student need. The two teachers might be working together, and at some point through formative assessment, discover there may be six students who need additional practice with one of the skills. Those students then go to another classroom or step out in to the hallway to get a mini-lesson or extra practice. Then they return to the main classroom seamlessly. We demystify the whole idea of IEPs, special education and who gets pulled out. Pull-outs look different for each lesson depending on what the students need.

The Fund: What benefits have you seen for students through the inclusion model?

KA: Right now we’re analyzing student outcome data, and we’re finding that students grow exponentially in inclusive settings. When you exclude students with IEPs, a lot of bad things happen for their academic progress and their social-emotional development.

We see this in the daily experiences we have with children. The students with IEPs who were excluded have the most difficulty reintegrating with their general education peers. They’ve implicitly learned that they are “special ed.” They learned that they have an IEP and are not always capable of doing things that their general education peers can. They have learned helplessness. They walk around knowing, acting, thinking and existing as people with disabilities. They think, “This is how I’ll always be.” In an inclusive setting, we are able to change those negative thoughts and focus on the beauty of our differences.

The Fund: How have you overcome some of the barriers to full inclusion?

KA: I know it really starts with the principal. It starts with the mindset of people in charge of hiring and in charge of scheduling. It’s easy for a principal to believe that they can’t do at least some inclusion in their school because it’s costly. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s as simple as thinking, “I’m going to do this, and I’m going to make it fit.” It’s about prioritizing and thinking about what we are trying to do for children to bring civility to communities and the idea of social justice. Removing students does nothing but keep them behind and keep them in a perpetual special education placement. We’re hoping that some of our students with IEPs will be able to exit special education by the time they leave Moos. That’s a goal, and it’s going to be a lot easier to get there with an inclusive model.

*Name changed