Five years ago, the Dobbs Ferry School District took an enormous leap in deciding to implement inclusive special education, meaning that the majority of special education services would be administered within the district and special needs students would be incorporated into general education classes.
The process was overseen by the district's director of pupil personnel Phyllis Conley, who retired in June.
This September, Dobbs Ferry welcomed Linda Lee as Conley's successor, hoping Lee could continue to develop and enhance the special education program the district touts as one of its greatest strengths.
"I did what Ms. Conley did for Dobbs Ferry in the San Francisco schools," Lee said. "So I know what a huge undertaking it is. My hope here is to focus on making the program stronger and more effective."
Hailing all the way from the west coast to assume this position in Dobbs Ferry, Lee was most recently the director of special education for the Ravenswood School District in Palo Alto, CA. There, Lee was responsible for coordinating the educations of 400 students with IEP's—Individual Education Plans—in a district in which nearly 90 percent of students were eligible for free lunch.
Lee is a strong proponent of inclusive special education, believing it is beneficial both for students with IEP's and those in the general education program.
"I believe kids with disabilities are kids first," Lee said. "It's best for them to be educated in their neighborhood schools following, wherever possible, the general ed. curriculum."
Lee said the key to making inclusive education work is maintaining an intense collaboration between special ed. and general ed. teachers, constantly monitoring that special needs students are receiving the support and services—both inside and outside the classroom—that are outlined in their IEP's.
"A regular education setting is more representative of the world all students will ultimately live in," Lee said.
And for the students who are not in need of extra services, Lee said the experience of learning in an inclusive setting can be invaluable.
"When done well, the curriculum should not change because there are students with IEP's in a classroom," Lee said. "If anything, students who grow up in more diverse educational settings become more thoughtful and respectful adults."
Lee also noted that by having the extra support of special education teachers in a general education classroom, any children struggling with the subject matter have the benefit of a extra teacher in the room.
"Sometimes I'll walk into a classroom that has four students with IEP's and see the special education teacher working separately with seven students," Lee said. "That's ideally how the model should work."
According to Lee, not all classes in Dobbs Ferry have students with IEP's--"But they all have the potential to be inclusive," she said.
Lee hopes to push for more staff development workshops and exercises among teachers in the district.
"General ed. teachers have to understand what it means to have a child with an IEP in his or her classroom," Lee said. "It shouldn't be a mystery what services kids need."
Lee hopes to "empower individual teachers" to take ownership of their classrooms, organizing trainings and opportunities for teachers to observe other teachers within the district. "I come with a wealth of resources and hope to provide ongoing support," she said.
But Lee conceded that the most difficult aspect of making inclusion work is finding the time for teachers to collaborate, allowing general education instructors to learn what special needs students require and special education teachers to learn how they can be most helpful in the classroom.
"It requires extra team meetings and sometimes extra effort," she said.
As director of pupil personnel services, Conely was also responsible for spearheading character-building and anti-bullying initiatives. Lee will gradually assume those additional roles, but in the beginning will focus predominantly on special education.
"One goal I have already set is to concentrate on 'people first language,' Lee said. "This means instructing students and teachers not to describe special needs kids based on their disabilities—instead of saying 'the kid in the wheelchair,' you describe him as 'the kid who collects baseball cards'—who might also happen to be in a wheelchair."
Lee believes language is a huge factor in determining how people think, and that destructive habits become more and more difficult to break as students get older.
"Instead of speaking in a way that's medical and restrictive, I want to set a better tone," she said.
Lee herself was born with a disability, Cerebral Palsy, and says she received little support from her schools.
"That probably has a lot to do with why I gravitated toward special education," Lee said. "When I was young, I was told, 'You can't do certain things because you have a disability."
Luckily, Lee grew-up during a time in which many of those perceptions changed, but she still felt strongly that it was unfair for special needs students to graduate from self-contained schools and suddenly enter a world not nearly as segregated and easy to navigate.
"There's no self-contained McDonalds or Nordstrom," she said. "My job is to prepare all children to be as independent as possible, and that means preparing them socially and culturally as much as academically."