In a tag-team approach, Richmond County school officials are trying to bolster the education of special-needs pupils by providing them with the same instruction as regular education pupils.
"That's what it is all about - teamwork," Glenn Hills Middle School Principal Hartley Gibbons said of special and regular education teachers working together in the same classes. "We find that is a way everyone achieves more."
The strategy, called "inclusion," is contrary to the traditional approach in which pupils with special needs are placed in a separate environment.
Inclusion intermingles special and regular education pupils in the same class and is one way Richmond County school officials look to close the achievement gap.
Last school year, the Georgia Department of Education monitored Richmond County because the school system had the largest gap in reading and language arts scores of any system its size in the state. The county had 4,000 special education pupils.
Inclusion expanded to all Richmond County schools this year as part of a corrective action plan, although it isn't a new concept.
Aiken County has used inclusion for a number of years and enjoyed success with this approach, said Pat Silva, the director of special education.
"It's going fairly well in the schools that it's in," she said.
And the benefits extend beyond academics, Ms. Silva said. Pupils adjust better socially through inclusion.
"Children tend to act like the children around them," she said.
Columbia County shares similar tales of success.
It takes time to see the results, but there have been academic gains, said Dr. Deborah Williams, the assistant superintendent of student learning.
These are the lessons Richmond County is learning and hoping to build on.
At Glenn Hills Middle, which started using inclusion a couple of years ago, the proof of the program's success is in the test scores, school officials said. Last school year, 44 percent of pupils with disabilities met or exceeded standards in English/language arts, compared with 11 percent the previous year.
If all pupils, except those with the most severe disabilities, must take the same tests, then they should all be "exposed" to the same curriculum, Mr. Gibbons said. This year, 140 of the school's 145 special education pupils are in inclusion classes.
Educators provide appropriate modifications and accommodations to ensure that pupils are successful, Director of Special Education Sharon Harkrider said. For instance, books on tape may be provided to a pupil who learns better by hearing.
Putting all pupils in the same class also has led to a drop in discipline referrals, she said. And by starting pupils in earlier grades, she hopes to also cut down on special education referrals.
"Not all the kids learn the same, so we have to try different styles," seventh-grade teacher Doug Prince said. "Some teachers are not used to having other teachers in the classroom. They're used to doing it all by themselves. But once you realize how much help you can get with another teacher in the classroom, it's a tremendous help."
And special-needs pupils aren't the only ones who benefit, Mrs. Harkrider said. Struggling regular education pupils also make gains with the assistance of the special education instructor.
WHAT IS INCLUSION?
In general, the term means that pupils with disabilities participate in the same activities as their peers, including general education classes, extracurricular organizations and social activities. The term also implies that pupils are provided support in the general education setting before being removed to a special education classroom or excluded from an activity.
Source: Georgia Department of Education