Principal Bonnie L. Vick claims that her recently built $15.3-million school is a state-of-the-art facility for severely handicapped children. The Frederick J. Gaenslen School, which opened last month, has elevators spacious enough to accommodate a classroom filled with wheelchair-bound students. It also boasts handrails along its hallways, color-coded corridors, and cantilevered blackboards that enable children in wheelchairs to face the board when they write on it. Additionally, there are shallow pools for hydrotherapy, and the stoves in the home economics classrooms have controls placed at the front for easy access by students in wheelchairs.
One of the preschool classrooms features a booth equipped with audio pipes and colored lights that illuminate sequentially to stimulate the senses of profoundly handicapped students. In the industrial arts classrooms, all the equipment is set at wheelchair-height. According to Ms. Vick, "This building was designed to be a model for the district, and it certainly will be."
What is even more significant to Ms. Vick and other officials is that the school will attempt something unprecedented on a large scale: the integration of severely handicapped children with their non-handicapped peers.
The Gaenslen School combines students from a separate special education school for the handicapped and a regular elementary school located five blocks away. This development represents a major advancement in special education for the Milwaukee public school system. While most special education students in the city attend classes in their local schools, the most severely handicapped children have historically been educated in separate public school buildings. However, the new Gaenslen School allows 195 of these children the opportunity to learn alongside their non-handicapped peers, similar to a typical school setting.
Many of these profoundly handicapped children would not have had the chance to attend public schools ten years ago. According to Ms. Vick, most of them have multiple disabilities such as autism and spina bifida. Some are unable to walk, crawl, or speak. The story of Gaenslen’s development highlights the challenges faced by school officials in integrating severely handicapped students with the greatest needs. It also raises important questions about the extent to which educators should go, and realistically can go, in serving the severely disabled in regular classrooms.
The Gaenslen School has a historical background that dates back to 1939 when the initial Frederick J. Gaenslen School was constructed by Milwaukee school officials. At the time, it was considered a model facility for special education and welcomed mildly and severely handicapped students from across the state. However, as more moderately handicapped children were mainstreamed into neighborhood schools, the concentration of severely disabled students at Gaenslen increased. Five years ago, the school was deemed outdated by Milwaukee school officials.
Edward McMilin, the district’s facilities director, remarked, "What was state-of-the-art in 1938 is far from meeting the current federal laws mandating accessibility for the handicapped." Around the same time, it became evident that the 85-year-old Fratney Elementary School, located nearby and primarily serving non-handicapped students, also needed to be replaced. Ms. Vick explained, "Merging with Fratney seemed like an opportunity to normalize our student body. It made perfect sense, although we didn’t anticipate everyone agreeing to it."
The new Gaenslen/Fratney school was constructed just 10 feet away from the original Gaenslen school. District and school officials spared no expenses during its construction. William Malloy, the district’s assistant superintendent for exceptional education and supportive services, recalled, "There was never a moment when we said, ‘We don’t have enough money for that.’" The estimated cost of the new building is $15.3 million, which is about three times the average cost of a new elementary school in the district. Opened on April 11, the new facility is designed with clusters of three classrooms that open into a common area.
Mr. Malloy asserts that with the appropriate support services, any child can be integrated into a regular classroom. The Milwaukee Public Schools provides a range of services, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and deaf teachers, which are available to students with disabilities at Gaenslen School. However, replicating these facilities in all 190 schools in the district would be prohibitively expensive.
Despite the careful planning and consideration behind the creation of Gaenslen School, some members of the special education community argue that their approach to integration is insufficient. Lou Brown, a respected expert in the field, believes that children with disabilities should attend their home schools, rather than being bused into a separate school like Gaenslen. Furthermore, he points out that the ratio of disabled to non-disabled students at Gaenslen is significantly imbalanced.
This debate over how to best serve handicapped children in regular school settings has divided experts in the field. Progressive programs like Gaenslen’s find themselves at the center of this argument. On the other side, individuals like Edwin W. Martin, who oversaw special education services in the US Education Department, view Gaenslen’s program as an appealing option. Martin understands the difficult choices that parents face when deciding between a specialized program and one that may not provide the same level of support services, peer relationships, and positive self-confidence development.
During the five-year development of Gaenslen School, the larger issues in the national debate became practical concerns in the Milwaukee community. Initially, there was apprehension among parents and some regular classroom teachers about combining the two schools. Linda Oliver, who leads the Gaenslen school’s parent group and works as an aide, acknowledges that Milwaukee leans conservative, which contributed to the resistance. Parents of severely disabled children were fearful of potential physical interactions between their children and their non-disabled peers. Advocates of the integration emphasized that Gaenslen officials aimed to integrate rather than mainstream students. They assured parents that students would not simply be placed in a classroom with a large number of other students and lose their individualized attention and progress.
Planners also considered how non-disabled students would adjust to having disabled classmates, particularly during lunchtime when some students required assistance from aides to eat. Solutions such as creating a separate table behind a screen were considered but ultimately avoided.
‘Just Like You and Me’
"The concern is that if we open up the school, it may encourage people in this community to revert back to the old Fratney," Ms. Vick expresses. However, at present, Gaenslen is running relatively smoothly after its subdued inauguration last month. During recess, some able-bodied students willingly take on the responsibility of looking after their disabled classmates and assist them in moving their wheelchairs. Additionally, a few preschool teachers have started merging their classes for an hour of storytelling in the afternoon. When asked about the adjustments they have had to make when interacting with their new handicapped peers, many nonhandicapped students simply shrug. "They’re human beings," states Angie Mercado, a non-disabled 6th grader. "They’re just like you and me."