August 2010
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August 3rd, 2010

School district works with model of inclusion

August 3rd, 2010

By Michael Winerip, The New York Times

Garner Moss has autism and when he was finishing fifth grade, his classmates made a video about him, so the new students he would meet in the bigger middle school would know what to expect. His friend Sef Vankan summed up Garner this way: “He puts a little twist in our lives we don’t usually have without him.”

People with autism are often socially isolated, but the Madison public schools are nationally known for including children with disabilities in regular classes. Now, as a high school junior, Garner, 17, has added his little twist to many lives.

He likes to memorize plane, train and bus routes, and in middle school during a citywide scavenger hunt, he was so good that classmates nicknamed him “GPS-man.” He is not one of the fastest on the high school cross-country team, but he runs like no other. “Garner enjoys running with other kids, as opposed to past them,” said Casey Hopp, his coach.

Garner’s on the swim team, too, and gets rides to practice with a teammate, Michael Salerno. On cold mornings, no one wants to be first in the water, so Garner thinks it’s a riot to splash everyone with a colossal cannonball. “They get angry,” the coach, Paul Eckerle, said. “Then they see it’s Garner, and he gets away with it. And that’s how practice begins.”

On his smartphone, Garner loves watching YouTube videos of elevators (“That’s an Otis; it has an annoying fan.”) When John Stec, a swim teammate, met him two years ago, he assumed Garner wouldn’t talk much. “But as soon as you say stuff, he says stuff back to you,” John said. “He knew everyone’s name on the team even before he talked to us.”

This is why Garner’s parents, Beth and Duncan Moss, moved to Madison from Tennessee several years ago. In Tennessee, his parents said, they were constantly battling to have Garner included in regular programs, going through four mediation disputes.

“After third grade there, I told my husband, Garner would go nowhere in life and the family would fall apart,” Ms. Moss said. “We had to leave.” At the time, Ms. Moss, who stopped working as a teacher when Garner was born, was attending autism conferences. “I kept hearing about Madison,” she said.

Families with children with autism and developmental disabilities move from all over the country for the Madison schools. Kristi Jacobsen, whose son Jonathan has autism, moved from Omaha several years ago. She and her three children live here full time, while her husband, who has a financial business in Omaha, commutes back and forth.

“It’s a sacrifice,” Ms. Jacobsen said. “But Jonathan’s made such progress. They give him every opportunity to be part of the community.”

Lisa Pugh’s family moved from Wichita, Kan., for their daughter Erika, 11. A year and half ago Ms. Pugh took a job in Washington, but last month the family returned because, Ms. Pugh said, they missed Madison’s schools.

Build it and they will come. Nationally, about 12 percent of students are identified as disabled, but in Madison 17.5 percent are, according to John Harper, who oversees special education. Mr. Harper said that 88 percent of elementary students with disabilities were fully included in classes, along with 81 percent of middle school students and 63 percent of high school students. Most of the rest have a mix of general and special education classes; fewer than 5 percent are separate.

David Riley of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative said Madison was one of the “big three” leaders in successfully implementing inclusion, along with the schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Clark County, Nev.

While it costs Madison $23,000 to educate a child with autism (to pay for extra support staff members) versus $12,000 for a typical child, Colleen Capper, a University of Wisconsin professor, said inclusion was cheaper than segregating students.

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