City schools aim to increase inclusivity for students with disabilities, equity with internet access

Clarification and correction: This story was updated to clarify that the final travel policy the board approved has a limit of $1,000. The board discussed a $1,500 limit on Tuesday, but ultimately approved a $1,000 threshold, which wasn’t clear in an earlier draft. In addition, the update clarifies Obie Hill’s position on those thresholds.

By Haley Thomas, contributor

With new goals and a strategic plan, the Harrisonburg City Public School district is working to build an inclusive learning environment for students with disabilities.

Alison Shaner, director of special education, said at Tuesday’s Harrisonburg City School Board work session that there are long-term and short-term benefits to making schools more inclusive. 

Shaner cited research that found students in an inclusive learning environment benefit by developing stronger reading and math skills, have higher attendance rates and have fewer behavioral problems. This translates to adulthood. Adults who have been included are more likely to enroll in post-secondary education, be employed and live independently. 

“We want people to understand that when we talk about inclusive practices, it means really meeting a child where they are,” Shaner said. “It means providing the individualized support that a child needs to be successful.”

In HCPS, nearly 79% of students with disabilities were included in the regular classroom for 80% or more of the day during the 2020-21 school year. The goal is for more than 80% of students to be integrated into those classrooms.

All kindergarten students are enrolled within their neighborhood elementary school, rising middle school students are attending their neighborhood middle school, and all 4 year old preschool students with disabilities are enrolled within inclusive Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) classrooms at Elon or Keister with additional special education support including a behavior specialist dedicated to preschool. 

“We’re going through a learning phase with this,” said Superintendent Michael Richards. “We’re moving more toward systems rather than superheroes. We teach teachers how to do things effectively as opposed to them needing [a special education teacher] in the classroom.”

Inclusivity has been researched for more than 50 years. Studies have varied in scope, but consistently have shown that inclusivity has substantial benefits for students with and without disabilities. 

To put into perspective for the board how differently abled students might thrive, Shaner used the metaphor of children swimming in a lake. Some may be comfortable swimming on their own, while others may need floaties or a life preserver. There could be a student sitting on the dock, only ready to get their toes wet. Some students may swim in a different, smaller pond before swimming in the lake, she said. 

Like the children in the lake, some students may be ready to dive into learning, while others may need accommodations. Some students with disabilities that require specific care might be placed in a separate learning environment for a period of time, but Shaner said the goal is to eventually integrate them into the classroom.

This isn’t the first move toward inclusivity in HCPS. Shaner said that during COVID-19 and the transition to online learning, school-based teams, administrators, teachers and social workers saw an opportunity to transition students with disabilities not enrolled in HCPS to regular online instruction. The number of students with disabilities who were home-schooled or served in separate private schools dropped during the pandemic, Shaner said, calling this “one of the rare celebrations of COVID.”

“This is hard work, and I want to recognize and honor that dedication on a daily basis to thinking about how to support all students,” Shaner said.

She said the best way to continue to meet HCPS students where they are is with a strategic plan that promotes inclusivity. She said it all begins in a community where “each student will build authentic connections with peers and adults that support academic, social and emotional growth.” 

Another part of the strategic plan, Shaner said, is ensuring equity through providing students “opportunities to access and engage in rigorous learning and social emotional experiences to realize their potential.”

A nationwide study revealed that 55% of white students with disabilities spend more than 80% of their day in general education classrooms, while only 33% of Black students have the same access. 

A similar equity study found that one in 10 white boys with disabilities is suspended each year while one out of four Black boys with disabilities is suspended each year. Shaner said educational leaders need to take action to correct the disproportionality among students of different races and ethnicities and prevent this from happening in HCPS. 

“I think it’s important to recognize that this is a piece of that equity,” Shaner said. “Keeping students in the general education classroom to the greatest extent possible helps support not letting us fall into that trap. We don’t want to be a part of that.”

The district plans tol continue to integrate inclusive practices in the 2023-24 school year. This includes continued collaboration with Head Start, VPI and community partnerships, ongoing planning for Rocktown High School and equitable special education programming within both high schools and increasingly natural proportions and representation of students with disabilities in HCPS and all school programs.

“The discussion is over,” Shaner said. “We know what the path is.”

Equity in internet access

This academic year, a Kajeet Homework Gap grant made HCPS eligible for up to $30,000 worth of Kajeet Education Broadband solutions. This includes unlimited student data plans, WiFi Hotspots, routers and other devices to facilitate internet access outside the classroom.

Kevin Perkins, director of technology, said HCPS has plans to leverage these funds. His first idea is to implement SmartBuses — school buses with WiFi.

During the pandemic, emergency funding allowed HCPS to work with the city to put internet modems on city-owned cars. The cars were parked in various places around Harrisonburg and allowed students with weak or no internet access to safely pursue online learning. 

Like these cars, SmartBuses will allow internet access for more students. The buses will have a range of about 150 feet and can provide internet connection to large groups, Perkins said.

In spring 2022, HCPS staff worked with Harrisonburg Electric Commission to identify five utility poles that could accommodate a Kajeet SmartBus unit in areas near clusters of students. Two units are in the Norwood Street area, two in the University Place complex off South Avenue and one in the Spotswood Trailer Park area off Country Club Road. 

HCPS-issued student devices can automatically connect to these units and be used for completing academic work at home, Perkins said. 

Eighteen additional SmartBus units were deployed at the schools. Of the 18, 10 were issued to instructional technology coaches to use to facilitate internet access for students on field trips or participating in outdoor learning activities. 

Grant funding will also be used for 50 Hotspots. Every teacher facilitating online instruction from home will be granted access to their own Hotspot. The remaining ones can be requested by students who lack internet access and are unable to come to school. 

“If kids aren’t connected, there isn’t equity,” Richards said. Whether a student is injured, in quarantine or suspended, he said, they should still have access to pursue their education online.

Given that pandemic-related emergency funding for student home Internet access is no longer available and the Kajeet Homework Gap grant is for only this academic year, district officials don’t have plans to provide internet access for students outside of school beyond spring 2023.

Perkins, however, “strongly recommends” that families who need financial assistance to help cover home internet service apply for an up to $30-per-month subsidy through the Affordable Connectivity Program

Board passes travel reimbursement policy

The board also approved a travel policy for board members that allows them to incur travel expenses of up to $1,000 for conferences and workshops without having to get board approval. For trips costing beyond the $1,000 amount, a board member would have to bring the reimbursement request before the full board. 

The measure, which attracted strong opposition from board member Obie Hill at the previous meeting and again Tuesday, passed 4-2. Deb Fitzgerald, the interim board chair, and members Andy Kohen, Kristen Loflin and Tom Domonoske voted for it, while HIll and Kaylene Seigle voted against it.

The policy was originally reviewed to put a limit on travel reimbursement for board members for budgetary purposes. An original proposal called for a $1,000 limit, but at Tuesday’s meeting Richards said a $1,500 limit would be reasonable. In addition, the policy says: “The School Board shall reserve the right to approve or disapprove any member’s request to participate in more than one such opportunity per year or to spend above this cap on any opportunity.”

“Personally, I’ve got no issue with a limit from $500 to $1,500,” Tom Domonoske said. 

Richards said board members can still request reimbursement if their travel exceeds the $1,000 limit, it just isn’t guaranteed.

Hill, who expressed concern about the $1,000 limit during the Oct. 6 board meeting, said he preferred the $1,500 limit.

“We are growing as a division, and it’s part of our standards of quality to [pursue] professional development,” Hill said. “We’ll have two high schools in a couple years, and I think we should be mindful of that and keep in mind that it’s important for us to attain professional development.”

Kohen said that because the number of students in the district won’t change with the addition of Rocktown High, Hill’s argument was invalid.

“There’s an opportunity cost for everything,” Fitzgerald said, adding that this money could instead go to teachers to help with classroom expenses.

Instruction materials challenge process review

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Richards suggested to the board a deeper look at the process that deals with challenged controversial instructional materials. Richards said he came to the conclusion that such a policy “needs a broader community input.”

“We want to make sure that everyone is treated equally in their ability to challenge books [and other materials],” Dr. Richards said. “This should be a process that is transparent to the public.” 

While there is a committee dedicated to reviewing challenged books, Richards said he wants to put together a similar task force in the community to get more perspectives.

Richards said he wants to eventually discuss with the board a system for establishing such a committee, but for now, everything is still in the works.

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