P.S. ARTS Helps LAUSD Take Down Fences for Children with Disabilities

By Dr. Kristen Paglia, Executive Director of Education & Programs

 What would happen, they conjectured, if they simply went on assuming their children would do everything. Perhaps not quickly. Perhaps not by the book… What if they kept their expectations but erased the time line? What harm could it do? Why not try?

This is the question nurse Caroline Gill poses in Kim Edwards’ 2006 novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Caroline’s adopted daughter had Down’s Syndrome, but what parent hasn’t grilled the pediatrician about how long is too long to wait for a particular developmental milestone to appear? It’s a good question, “What would happen…?”

One thing that might happen is parents and teachers would save themselves a lot of time and angst, because the milestone will come or it won’t. Either way, we seek to create a safe space in the world where every child we are responsible for (and, from my perspective as the director of an education nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children, that’s all of them), can thrive and develop his or her own unique gifts. What would have happened, indeed, if Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison (did you know he didn’t learn to read until he was twelve?!), Franklin Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Stephen Hawkings — the list of famous people with disabilities goes on and on — what would have happened if they had not found a way to access and share their gifts?

This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot these last months as we at P.S. ARTS strategize on how to best integrate a hundred students with severe disabilities into our music and visual arts classes at Grand View Boulevard Elementary in Mar Vista. In fact, the question has extended in my mind to, what would happen if we bypassed the conjecture and misgivings about a future we can’t possibly begin to predict, and spent our time and energy imagining and then building a learning environment that considers the needs and wellbeing of every child. This is what we hope to accomplish in P.S. ARTS classes as Grand View and the neighboring James McBride Special Education Center – now segregated by a chain link fence running the length of the playground – become one integrated learning community.

When P.S. ARTS was approached by Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) special education administrators to support them in integrating these two schools through our arts classes, I was both thrilled for the opportunity and shocked to learn that so many children with disabilities in LAUSD are still totally segregated from their typically developing peers. Since 1996, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has been under a federal court consent decree requiring compliance with special education and civil rights laws pertaining to the delivery of services and the elimination of architectural barriers in schools. In 2003, the consent decree was modified due to the lack of progress in providing mandated services to the approximately 80,000 LAUSD students with special needs. The modified consent decree stipulated twenty specific outcomes to be achieved by 2006. To date, LAUSD has achieved eighteen of those. The fiscal crisis, lack of sufficient human resources, and political obstacles have prohibited LAUSD from accomplishing the final outcomes related to desegregating the four campuses in the district like Grand View and McBride separating students with disabilities from their peers for the entire school day.

LAUSD Division of Special Education, in partnership with P.S. ARTS and other service organizations, is striving to reach these final outcomes in the next three years, immediately reducing the number of students with moderate to severe disabilities ages 6-18 at special education centers by a total of 33%, and integrating students with disabilities in general education classes for at least 12% of the instructional day. An abundance of research shows that the arts support the development of empathy and innovation, and provide all children with some way of processing information and communicating, making P.S. ARTS classes the perfect environment for successful integration. Moreover, we also know that general education students participating in our integrated arts program will benefit in multiple ways. Inclusive education researcher and Executive Director of the National Partnership for People with Disabilities, Dr. Fred Orelove, asserts that students who participate in inclusive education exhibit decreased social intolerance, and are less likely to engage in anti-social behavior such as bullying.

Helping every child achieve his or her fullest potential is something we strongly believe in at P.S. ARTS, and we are honored to be part of this pivotal moment in history for educational equity. It was only in the 1970s that some children with disabilities were even allowed access to public education, and many schools excluded children with vision and hearing impairments or developmental disabilities. Today, more that 6.5 million children with disabilities are being educated in American public schools. We do not know the limits to what any of these children can accomplish. More than that, given the opportunity to learn and grow and invent together, we do not know the limits of what can be accomplished by an integrated community of children who are taught to appreciate differences, cooperate, find solutions, and break down the fences that keep us apart.

If I regarded my life from the point of view of the pessimist, I should be undone. I should seek in vain for the light that does not visit my eyes and the music that does not ring in my ears… I should sit apart in awful solitude, a prey to fear and despair. But since I consider it a duty to myself and to others to be happy, I escape a misery worse than any physical deprivation. – Helen Keller     

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