While Madonna and Pat Benatar had a following  of millions in the eighties and nineties, Joan Smith and Dawn Fabbro had  a powerful following of their own in Montclair. You may not have ever heard of them but they were rock stars in their own right as trailblazers of inclusive education for children with special needs.

Joan and Dawn both have adult children with Down’s Syndrome who are currently leading more  fulfilling and independent lives than they had ever dreamed imaginable. They believe their childrens’ progress is in part, if not wholly, attributable to the inclusive education they received throughout their studies in the Montclair Public School system. 

Was it easy? Absolutely not. There was advocacy needed every step of the way, but with perseverance the support they received from other parents of children with disabilities and the support of some teachers and administrators, they accomplished their goal of inclusive education for their children at a time when it was not fashionable.

Believing that modeling by typical children would benefit their own was only half of the success story; the typical kids benefited from their children as well.

With some Special Needs programs at risk because of the the budget cuts, many believe it is all the more important to learn what our rights are with regard to how to best provide a suitable learning environment for our children with special needs. 

Last week Governor Christie  proposed that each NJ county have its own separate school for autism, which has been met with mixed reviews. Although some educators, such as Linda Meyer, executive director of Autism New Jersey, a family advocacy and research group, saw this as a welcome change, not everyone has had the same reaction.

In an article from NJ.com Lisa Ruble, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology, said, “Now we see a trend toward segregated programs.” Ruble, who specializes in autism research also stated, “I personally believe that each program must be individualized and that some children may benefit for a period of time in a specialized program that does not include typical peers, but I have observed, and research also shows, that children with autism benefit from social skills interventions and need access to typical peers for this learning. We know for sure that there is no “one size fits all” approach here and each child needs a personalized program that includes a collaborative team approach.’’ she said.

Many Montclair folks are more in the middle, like Leslie Kunkin. Ms. Kunkin is the Special needs liaison for Northeast school and she feels that there is certainly a place for contained classes for children with special needs, as well as a need for complete inclusion. “It fully depends on the individual, but parents need to have access to all the information out there, as well as their rights before making the appropriate decision for their children.”

Melissa S., a mother of a child on the autistic spectrum in Montclair shares, “One size does not fit all. We need to provide a range of appropriate environments for our ever-growing, ever-changing children. For example, one year a child may need a small, calm classroom to learn well, and another year the same child might require a large classroom which provides different social and intellectual challenges. All children benefit socially and educationally from inclusion.”

Below are some thoughts on inclusive education in Montclair from seasoned Special Needs Advocate, Joan Smith:

A couple of years before my daughter Betsy was to attend school (1978), I looked at the available programs that existed in the area.  One in Nutley, another in Newark and one at the Felician school. All were segregated self contained programs. None fit the vision I had for my daughter to grow up in a welcoming society and to experience the vast life experiences in a society that her siblings and peers were part of. Upon learning from a social worker in Montclair Public Schools about Public Law 94-142, which was the cornerstone for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), I learned that the law was on our side.  The next 15 years I was part of a group of four families who were totally dedicated to establishing inclusive environments in Montclair Schools. I will only say here that it was not easy sailing with many many challenges, setbacks  and disappointments but always there was a small contingent of outstanding professionals that went the extra mile to support the vision that kept our dream alive.. We researched every avenue for best practices.  Our children were our inspiration as we watched them grow and develop their individual gifts and talents.  Their peers were their role models and friends.
Meeting the group of parents that gather weekly to share information and exchange ideas that will support and enhance their children’s educational settings has been a great source of excitement and hope for me personally. It has been some time since this happened in Montclair for children with disabilities and I am truly impressed with the knowledge and enthusiasm each person brings to the weekly gatherings.
The problem in Montclair is that inclusive education has always been parent driven and I believe the time has come that the Bd. of Education and administration of Montclair School District take the ownership and commitment to lead the establishment of inclusive education practices in all the Montclair Schools. 

I would not continue to champion the cause for inclusive education if I did not totally know that it leads to positive outcomes.  Young adults who experience inclusive education are gainfully employed, respected and leading happy lives of self direction and dignity in their communities.  We are living in a time where post secondary education for people with intellectual disabilities is growing by leaps and bounds.  The mold of separatism and low expectations must be broken to enable full participation in the days and years ahead.  Your kids must be ready.  Keep the cadence alive as you march into a new future for your children.
I support bringing kids back to district but not in a self contained school.  I DO NOT believe that Montclair should open its doors to other communities to educate their kids with special needs.  I think that this is an ill conceived plan which would cause all kinds of problems during transition years when students should be learning to work, travel, bank and access shopping and recreation in their own communities.  This plan does not typify best practices and was certainly not conceived of  by those that are aware of what best practices should look like.
 To learn more about what your rights are as well as meet other parents experiencing challenges with their children with special needs, there is an ongoing Parents of Children with  Special Needs Support and Advocacy Group held every Friday morning in Montclair from 9:30 am -11 am. Periodically, there are mentors like Joan Smith and Dawn Fabbro from the NJ Coalition for Inclusive Education in attendance. If you are interested in attending, email me here.

Tonight, Tuesday, January 18, the Montclair Special Education Parent Advisory Council(PAC) will hold a very important meeting. Dr. Frank Alvarez, Superintendent of Montclair Schools, will attend and speak about the possible outsourcing of Paraprofessionals/Special Education Aides, transitioning IEP services when a child moves from one school to another within the District, and the proposal to not only bring more out of District students back but to also set up programs that will attract students from other Districts in order to bring in revenue. He will also introduce the new Director of Pupil Services, Ms. Linda Mithaug. He will speak to these and any other questions you may have.

PAC Meeting
Parents of children with Special Needs.
What: Special meeting with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Alvarez to address the budget cuts.
Where:  Mt. Hebron Middle School, 173 Bellevue Avenue, Montclair, NJ, 07043.
When: Tuesday, January 18 at 7 pm.

(Excerpt photo: Wikipedia)