The playground and classroom can be a battlefield for any child, but for students with disabilities it can be particularly harrowing.
Teacher Katya Robinson can attest to this, but she also knows it doesn’t have to be this way.
Robinson, a veteran special education teacher at Park Side Elementary and the 2019 recipient of Sonoma County’s Teacher of the Year award, said the problem with many special education programs is that the extra services some students need for success often come at the cost of isolating them from their general education peers. Robinson said that this does a disservice to both mainstreamed general education students and special education students.
“Public school is a funny thing when it comes to students with special education services,” she said. “With class sizes increasing and more demands being placed on general education teachers, inclusion is becoming more difficult to achieve. This is something that I have a very hard time accepting, knowing how successful inclusion can be.”
Despite these obstacles, Robinson insists on making some forms of inclusion possible, even if class size and funding isn’t ideal. Her solution to this problem was to instate programs that incorporated a strategy of “reverse inclusion.”
Reverse inclusion combats the isolating nature of special education programs by arranging times for general education students to spend time working with their special education peers.
To make this idea a reality, Robinson applied and was approved for the Sonoma Art Residency Grant, which brought visiting artists in to teach during this reverse inclusion time.
In an art class, “everyone is allowed to perform at their own level,” Robinson said, which is partially why it is such a successful environment to practice reverse inclusion.
“Every Monday, I now have nine general education students attend my class for two hours to participate in this art program, to support their younger friends, and to offer inclusion for my students with their typically developing peers.”
“Over the six-week program, I saw a shift in my students’ confidence levels, empowerment levels and social skills,” Robinson said. “I also saw our general education buddies develop compassion, acceptance and an inclusive view of people with disabilities.”
As evidence of the program’s success she cites an on-campus incident in which several general education students were caught throwing sticks at some of her special education students, but when a yard duty was alerted to this and came over to intervene, she discovered that a handful of other students had already stepped in to come to the children’s defense. Robinson notes that many of those students who took the initiative to interrupt that bullying had participated in her “reverse inclusion” art program.
“This what it’s all about,” she said. “This is what our schools need to be doing more of. We need to be teaching acceptance, inclusion and the fact that we are all just people with our unique characteristics.”
Because of the program’s success, Robinson’s reverse inclusion strategies have since expanded beyond just art-making.
“We now have a color-run with our [general education] buddies, and our buddies come into our classroom on their free time to hang out,” she said.
Although Robinson has been teaching for over 15 years, and was last week recognized for her exemplary teaching methods, she said, “There was definitely a learning curve … Even with all my years in school, I felt like nothing could have prepared me for my first years teaching … I felt like I was in over my head and I questioned if I made the right career choice. I’m very grateful I had teacher colleagues and administrators that were supportive.”
Eventually, with persistence, she found that not only did her job get easier, but it also developed into a passion. She said of the first moment she realized she loved teaching was when she started working with the West County Consortium as a behavioral assistant. As she was working with a student independently she remembers saying to herself, “Wow. This is fun and they are paying me for it?”
From there, her drive to expand opportunities for her students only grew. She has since begun the Epic Athletes Program, which offers to disabled students soccer, basketball, parent educational nights and yoga.
“I learned a long time ago that if I want something done in my classroom, I need to find resources to get those things done. The never ending school cuts and the uphill battle I have to fight in order to get the materials is endless. I have learned that when I have an idea in mind, I am determined to get there.”
Robinson said that she has “fundraised for all of the following materials: standup desks, wobble stools, roll-stools, kneel chairs, iPads, Chromebooks, Apple-tv, lighting, cushions, bounce chairs and fidgets.”
She said that by tirelessly advocating for the needs of her students, she has community-funded the transformation of her classroom into a “model classroom for behavioral management, flexible seating, and engaged learning.”
“I can see how I want my world to be, and it’s clearer than ever. I can see people with disabilities having equal opportunities, a quality education and a sense of purpose and belonging. If I can visualize this world, I have the ability as a community leader to make it happen,” she said. “My teaching doesn’t stop at the classroom door. It stops when my world becomes a reality for the majority of our community.”