Of the surveys that SBF publishes, one that's particularly interesting to me is the Special-Needs Survey (to view it, visit the research section on our website).
On average over the past five years, respondents reported that 36.7 percent of their special-needs students are mainstreamed (i.e., ride regular-ed routes), with this year having the lowest figure (30 percent).
I have a disability (cerebral palsy), but I have not been given special treatment throughout my life and I've appreciated that. In my opinion, when you have a disability, it boosts your self-esteem to be treated as "normally" as possible.
It seems, then, that it would benefit special-needs students for operations to practice mainstreaming whenever possible. I realize that there are many factors that can affect whether a special-needs student rides a bus with his or her general-education peers. For instance, perhaps that student's disability is so severe that it's safest for him or her to ride on a special-needs route.
Launi Schmutz, director of transportation at Washington County School District in St. George, Utah, says that parents also play a large role in this, and often want to help in making transportation decisions.
"What's best for the student needs to be looked at in the IEP. Sometimes that's putting them with their [special-needs] peers, sometimes it isn't. It's definitely more costeffective to transport them on a regular-ed bus," Schmutz adds.
Schmutz estimates that the cost to transport students at her operation on regular routes is about $248 per student, whereas the cost for transporting students on special-needs routes is about $974 per student.
Although what's best for the student should be the priority in determining whether he or she can be mainstreamed, Schmutz says cost should be considered, especially in today's economic climate.
Schmutz attends IEP meetings and asks how special-needs students behave during lunch, recess and in between classes (which she considers similar to the environment on a school bus), and how they interact with others to help establish whether they could be mainstreamed.
However, she emphasizes, "Every decision is made individually with consideration of each student's safety and welfare." Schmutz also maintains an open line of communication with the individuals who discuss with parents the transportation options for their children.
"You have to have buy-in," she says. "Patience is key." (Schmutz says it once took a year for the parents of a student with a mild disability to allow him to ride on a regular-ed route.)
Students learn self-advocacy
Mainstreaming can also aid in students' development. Jean Zimmerman, supervisor of occupational and physical therapy for the Palm Beach County School District in West Palm Beach, Fla., says it will help special-education children learn how to respond in the "real world."
"It will be a prelude to learning to ride a public city bus later in life," she says. "They're going to learn self-advocacy."
She adds that a "buddy system" - wherein a regular-ed student sits and talks with a special-needs student - could help the student adjust to riding a regular route.
"I also think that prior to the special-education student riding the bus, it would be beneficial to inform the other kids that he or she may be a little different, but should be welcomed by everyone," she says.