The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) plans to integrate approximately 35,000 disabled students into regular classes and bus routes by 2006 (see Special-Needs News on pg. 7). The changes, which many people say are overdue, will be fraught with new challenges to school transportation professionals. To overcome the growing pains of special-needs inclusion, LAUSD can look to other districts such as Chicago Public Schools, which started implementing similar changes more than a decade ago. Peter Grandolfo, manager of safety and special programs for the district, discussed with SBF Plus how this integration of special-education children affects student transportation.
SBF Plus: Can you describe the impact this change has had on school transportation in Chicago?
Grandolfo: It’s reduced the number of buses on the street. And more importantly, it’s given children with disabilities greater access to children who aren’t disabled. It’s socialization.
SBF Plus: What are the major financial challenges involved?
Grandolfo: There is an initial cost to acquiring more lift buses. Then you also must be careful in routing because in some cases your capacity is limited by the space that is needed on the vehicle for wheelchairs and lifts. It can be a financial burden at first, but over time, costs decrease.
SBF Plus: Did your district encounter any emotional barriers?
Grandolfo: The kids had very little problem adjusting. The non-disabled kids accepted almost without question the kids with disabilities, and the disabled kids haven’t really had any problems either. In fact, a number of parents of special-needs kids asked that their children be picked up on the street like regular students, rather than having a home pickup.
SBF Plus: How did inclusion affect drivers and driver training?
Grandolfo: There was a bit of strain. Typically, drivers are either familiar with transporting non-disabled children, or they are familiar with transporting students with disabilities. Often, a mainstream driver doesn’t understand special-needs kids in general, and they don’t understand the laws and requirements for providing these kids with transportation. And there are some behavioral issues as well. It’s an evolutionary process. We incorporated [special-needs training] into our statewide driver-training program, so now all drivers get a certain amount of training on this subject.
SBF Plus: Has Chicago seen the fruits of its labors and, to LAUSD, is this change worth it overall?
Grandolfo: It is absolutely worth it. One of our goals is to integrate and educate all children in the best way possible. Transportation should have the same goal. Integrating disabled kids with non-disabled kids is in itself an education. I am not going to say it always works perfectly, and I am never going to say it is the best thing for every single child, but it does work. The costs have gone down, and kids with and without disabilities appreciate it and are getting a lot out of it.