Inclusive practices at the preschool level, with two special needs boys playing and learning together at a small table

Although placing all children in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is the law and is best for the child, some educators may face challenges from their school systems or counties.

Empowering teachers, schools, and counties to push the limits of what they think is possible for students is Patti Adkins’ passion. She jumped on the opportunity to share her passion at Common Ground, Maryland’s top professional development event of the year for educators, in May 2018 at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in Ocean City.

Adkins, a Wicomico County supervisor of special education, including Part C and preschool special education, created a presentation titled “Preschool Inclusive Practices and Systemic Change” with several officials in the Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services at the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), including Marcella Franczkowski, Assistant State Superintendent; Marsye Kaplan, Early Childhood Performance Specialist; and Nancy Vorobey, Section Chief, Early Education.

Franczkowski joined Adkins for the presentation at Common Ground. They impressed on the audience that perseverance is key when it comes to making systemic changes for students.

“You have to be ready for the pushback, for the defensiveness, for the argument, and still maintain your vision and passion, and know the right thing to do and what the research tells us to do,” she said. “That also involves courageous conversation. You’ve got to be able to say, that may not be best for the adults in your building because they’ll have to change, but this is right for kids.”

Adkins is familiar with these struggles firsthand. When she first started in her current position in 2009, she reviewed the data about how many preschoolers requiring special education services in Wicomico County were integrated into general education classrooms.

“What we were finding is 10 percent of our [preschool special education] children were completely segregated in a separate classroom, and 47 percent of our children were getting services outside of the general education classroom,” Adkins said. “We were definitely not meeting the state’s target in those areas.”

It was up to her to figure out Wicomico County’s next steps to meet these goals and ensure all children were included.

“Digging into the research and the evidence-based practices, we know that children learn from other children, so they needed to be with typically developed peers,” Adkins said.

Adkins made changes step by step. First, she ensured all children at the Wicomico County Judy Center were provided inclusive opportunities. Then, she looked at the county’s four Head Start programs, and finally focused on delivering more needed services to the preschool setting.

To help ensure the success of the programs and the students, Adkins brought county educators to national inclusion conferences. She continued the conversations that started at the conferences with principals and both general education and special education staff.

“We did make some really good systemic changes throughout that process,” Adkins said. “[Students] don’t have to take a bus across town because that’s the only school that will service them. Everybody has the opportunity to service children with disabilities in their home school regardless of the disability.”

Taking the Journey to Other Counties

Adkins was asked to present at Common Ground after MSDE recognized how much progress Wicomico County had made with inclusion.

The presentation “highlighted what our process was and what it looked like, and how another county can go about making those changes as well,” she said.

The attendees’ responses were positive.

“They asked a lot of really great questions, not so much from a leadership point of view, but from a program and provider point of view” about the challenges they currently face in their county or system, Adkins said.

She acknowledged that attitudes and beliefs still need to shift so special education students can be included in general education classrooms more often.

While many general and special educators may not think they know how to provide services to a child with a disability, Adkins said they “do have those tools and strategies, they just haven’t used them in so long.”

The True Impact

Adkins believes that all children should be included in general education classrooms, especially in preschool. And her vision is clear to her colleagues in Wicomico County.

“When they see me, they see me as the inclusion person,” Adkins said. “They know I’m going to ask the questions like, ‘Why can’t this child be in a typically developing classroom? What else does this child need to be supported?’”

She shared a story that highlights how important inclusion is for students: Adkins had worked extensively through the Maryland Infants and Toddlers program with a medically fragile boy who was completely dependent on a wheelchair and an adult to push him. When it was time for the boy to enter preschool, his mother was hesitant to send him to school, afraid that he wouldn’t make any progress.

“We said, ‘Mom, give us a chance,’” Adkins recalled. “‘He will be in good hands with us, we will take care of him, we will make sure his needs are well met and that he’s safe and with his peers.’ Reluctantly, she sent him to school.”

What happened during the second month of the school year was more than the boy’s mother had imagined could be possible.

“She could barely tell me, but through her tears she said, ‘He smiled at this friend today. He’s never smiled in his entire life,’” Adkins said, herself emotional as she recalled the conversation with the boy’s mother during a routine check-in at the school.

“We worked with this child for five years. We couldn’t get him to respond to anything,” she said. “But he continued to smile throughout the year, and he had a great year.

“Knowing this is such important work, that you have to stand your ground . . .we’re not [going to] give up. This is the right thing for kids.”