It’s important for all children to learn patience and empathy, and to realize that everyone is different. Research and practice have proven that diverse groups of children benefit when they learn and play together. Contributions from peers with different backgrounds help give everyone a fair chance to develop the skills they need to thrive. This is why inclusive education practices are highly regarded.
In inclusive preschool settings, children with and without individualized education plans (IEPs)—the special education documents that describe what support students need to thrive in school—learn and play together throughout the day. The goal is for all students to be full participants in the classroom, instead of having separate special education classrooms for students with physical, cognitive, academic, social, or emotional needs.
State policymakers recently had the opportunity to learn about inclusive preschools and observe some of the successful programs firsthand. The October 27 visits were organized by the California County Superintendents association to demonstrate the positive effects of an inclusive educational approach. Teachers had an opportunity to share their successes and explained the need for continued and increased funding for this type of program. The visits included stops at two sites in Sacramento County: Hillsdale SETA Head Start and Vineland Elementary School.
Representatives from the Department of Finance, State Board of Education, Legislative Analyst’s Office, State Senate, and State Assembly observed the active classrooms and outdoor learning spaces at both sites. They were able to speak with teachers, staff, and parents about their experiences. One Vineland parent who spoke to the visitors described her son’s two years in the inclusive program as “life-changing,” significantly helping with the behavioral progress he’s made. The mother expressed sincere gratitude for all the hard work the teachers do, proudly explaining that her son is now a frequent leader in his classroom.
The Executive Director of the SCOE Early Learning Department, Julie Montali, Ph.D., helped plan the local visits. “It was very rewarding for our state leaders to tour these unique preschool programs, seeing them in action and hearing from staff and parents,” Montali said. “The Hillsdale program has had many great triumphs over its 20 years of serving preschoolers in an inclusive setting, and the early successes of the co-teaching model at Vineland are exciting to see.”
Importance of Inclusive Education
The two visits to programs in Sacramento County concluded with a group discussion about the positive impact of inclusion compared to segregated special education classrooms. Policymakers discussed the need for a variety of inclusive systems to serve not just preschoolers, but all children from birth through age five. They talked about the importance of training for general education staff, and the need to support gradual transitions for children with special needs as they succeed in general education environments. They also noted gaps in support and the ability to identify disabilities early on. It’s hoped that continued conversations with state leaders will result in the expansion and improvement of inclusive education opportunities.
In addition to its SCOE’s involvement in inclusive education, it operates a program called Help Me Grow – Sacramento County that promotes the use of screenings to detect developmental and behavioral delays in children from birth through age five. It also offers professional learning opportunities to help local educators advance their knowledge of inclusive and responsive practices.
About the Inclusive Preschool Programs
The Hillsdale Head Start program is a 20-year partnership between Sacramento Employment Training Agency (SETA) Head Start and the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) to offer inclusive services for preschool children. Teachers from the SCOE Special Education Department partner with SETA Head Start educators to provide the fully integrated program. Educators plan and offer support to all children in a rich, collaborative setting.
The new Vineland Elementary School program (in the Twin Rivers Unified School District) started last school year. It features a co-teaching model that includes both general education and special education staff. It offers various learning activities that help students develop their language, sensory-motor, social and emotional, literacy, and math skills.