Tate Julian, a sixth grader at Twin Peaks Middle School, recently had lunch with a new friend. He and his friends invited a boy named Cole, who has an assistant for his autism, to sit with them.

“He’s a nice boy,” Tate said. “My friends and I plan to do it every day.”

It’s the kind of interaction Poway Unified School District officials hoped for when they launched the Inclusive Practices Program a few years ago. Since then, the district has adopted a policy of “general education for all”.

Schools have closed their day classes, removing students with special educational needs from mainstream schools. And special education students who had been bussed for specific classes at other schools are now going to their neighborhood school.

The initiative brought about a change of mentality from the administration to the classroom.

Tate science teacher Amy Hillebrecht, a general education teacher, said the program has been extremely productive for special education students and their peers.

“I think it’s fantastic,” she said.

Amy Hillebrecht, a general education science teacher at Twin Peaks Middle School, leads her class in a game about natural disasters.

(Angela Brandt)

Students are allowed to choose their level of challenge in order to have the most success, Hillebrecht said. And the strongest students help others who may be struggling.

Part of the challenge is finding the best ways for each child to learn and adapt accordingly, she said.

On January 20, Hillebrecht led her co-taught class (two teachers in the same class) in a game about natural disasters. Students had to communicate without using words to complete sentences with facts about natural disasters, then read them aloud for the rest of the class to repeat.

“Nearly 50% of this class specializes in education and you would never know it,” she said outside her class. “They love interacting with each other.”

Tate said he enjoyed working with his comrades.

“You meet new people. It’s quite interesting to meet new people,” he said.

Brandon Jones, 12, who is in sixth grade with Tate, agreed. He said it was important to learn how to speak to a range of people.

“It will help you later in life,” he added.

Brandon said the inclusion program helped him learn that it was okay to be different and to be more empathetic.

He spoke of a friend who has a disability, although he was unsure of the exact diagnosis. But he’s known the friend for a while.

“Every time I see him he’s happy to see me and I’m happy to see him,” he said.

    Tate Julian, 11, and Brandon Jones, 12, sixth graders at Twin Peaks Middle School, are in an integrated classroom.

Tate Julian, 11, and Brandon Jones, 12, sixth graders at Twin Peaks Middle School, are in an integrated classroom.

(Angela Brandt)

The origin of the program dates back to 2017 when Poway Unified Administrator Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff recommended bringing in an outside team to conduct a special education needs assessment.

“One of my children has access to special education services, so inclusion is very personal for my family,” O’Connor-Ratcliff said.

The study found that day classes were too traditional, restrictive and progressed too slowly. Schools were on programming and on labeling, according to the study.

O’Connor-Ratcliff said she felt “vindicated” when they received the report’s findings.

“Now we had specific Poway data,” she said.

With the information from the report, the decision was made to move to general education for all. With daytime classes, special education students were separated from their peers for most of the day, with exceptions such as lunch, art, and physical education.

“This document has been written up to date,” said Greg Mizel, associate superintendent of student support services.

The program began in 2018 with three model schools – Monterey Ridge Elementary at 4S Ranch, Twin Peaks Middle School in Poway, and Mt. Carmel High in Rancho
Peñasquitos – works to increase access and inclusion of special education students in general education settings.

Mizel said most research indicates that methods of inclusion are best for children and have no negative impact on their peers. In fact, it helps elevate the experience of their classmates, he said.

Admittedly, some families struggled with the idea, as it was comforting to know their child had a specialist, teachers said.. In co-teaching classes, a general education teacher is joined by a specialist education teacher and sometimes other specialists.

“The vast majority kill it,” Mizel said of special education students. “Now they are learning with the children in their neighborhood. They are back in their community.

For this program, the district recently received the California School Board Association’s Golden Bell Award in the special education category.

Beginning this 2021-2022 school year, the district has eliminated all non-severely disabled special day classes at the elementary school level, Mizel said. By 2022-2023, all special day classes for non-severely disabled in colleges will be phased out.

The next scope of work for the Inclusive Practices Program will focus on the preschool level, he said.

Valley Elementary in Poway had the most children returning to general education, with 22 students.

“They’ve been a model school,” said district superintendent Heather Schauder. Department of Special Education.

The inclusion program, which began in high schools due to staff availability, is now in all high schools in the district.

On Jan. 20, 14-year-old Alexis Ulrich joined his freshman classmate in his integrated 1B math class at Poway High. Alexis worked in a small group with the help of his two teachers (one in general education and one in specialized education).

Alexis said her math class was a bit chaotic at first because math wasn’t her favorite subject. But having two teachers has been beneficial.

“It’s more useful than one. It’s really helpful for us,” she said during a brief break in class.

“It’s good to have everyone. It’s better together than apart,” said Alexis, who describes herself like a social butterfly.

Alexis has an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which is implemented for each student with a disability. She said she was separated for tests to help her focus and also had more time for quizzes and tests as part of her learning strategies.

“It doesn’t really matter if you’re on an IEP. You are still the same as everyone,” she said.

According to O’Connor-Ratcliff, 13 percent of PUSD students have access to special education services based on an IEP.

Mindy Karp, one of Alexis’ co-teachers, works in special education.

“The kids in there have no idea I’m an IEP teacher,” she said.

Karp and his co-teacher Lauren Hall have the same prep period and work together on plans for all students. Hall said having different levels of students learning at the same time is the biggest challenge she has encountered with the program.

“All the kids, I think, benefit from it,” she said. “We are still on the same page.”

Education Specialist Stephanie Spangler teaches third graders at Pomerado Elementary.

Education Specialist Stephanie Spangler teaches third graders at Pomerado Elementary.

(Angela Brandt)

At Pomerado Elementary, Paula Allison, a first-grade general education teacher, helped a group of students read in the corner of the room. Two of his students would otherwise have attended day classes.

“It was amazing,” she said. “It is important that children have a home.

“They embrace the differences,” Allison added.

Sarah Roddy, a fourth-grade general education teacher, is in her fourth year with inclusive practices. Roddy said one of the challenges at the start was balancing the needs of all students. She said it was also vital to help parents through the transition.

Del Norte senior Gus Zaletski works in a blood spatter lab while learning virtually from home.

Del Norte senior Gus Zaletski works in a blood spatter lab while learning virtually from home.

(courtesy photo)

Beth Zaletski said her son Gus, who has Down syndrome, has thrived since they moved in fifth grade to the Poway district, where he received the support he needed, including a one-on-one assistant. Gus is now 18 and attends Del Norte High.

“Things are good now,” Zaletski said. “He is doing very well.”

Socialization and peer modeling have been keys to her success, she said. Gus is the manager of his school’s basketball team.

“As you get older, the level of friendship is so important,” Zaletski said. “This is direct proof that inclusion works.”

Last year, Roddy had nine students with IEPs — four had never been in general education before. There were “tremendous growing pains, but the class learned,” she said.

Roddy recently saw photos from a date with one of his students who previously had trouble making friends.

“It’s genuine and not forced,” she said. “They do it because they want to.”

“That was a highlight,” Roddy added.

“I say to people who are not believers – come and see.”