RACINE - Fifth-grade teacher Gretchen Grotenrath clapped her hands last week and counted out loud until the eyes of about 25 students were all focused on her.
Then she continued presenting a social studies lesson while special education teacher Barb Christensen walked the room, quietly answering student questions and keeping all the fifth-graders on task.
Having two teachers work a classroom like that is called co-teaching and is the method being used by Racine Unified to implement inclusion, the practice of placing special education students in the regular education classroom alongside their peers. With inclusion, students are put in regular classrooms as often as possible depending upon each student's individualized education plan; some students may be in regular classes all the time while others may leave for some one-on-one help or may spend most of their time in special education rooms.
As of this fall, inclusion is now happening school-wide at all Unified elementary schools, like Goodland Elementary School, 4800 Graceland Blvd., where Grotenrath and Christensen co-teach a class of about 25 students including about five identified as special education.
Students don't know which children are special education and watching the class observers don't either. During class Sept. 7 all the students looked like basic fifth-graders as they alternated between paying attention and playing with colored pencils or talking to the student next to them. Most were quick to raise their hands when asked questions, wiggling their fingers and reaching their arms as high as they would go.
At one point, Grotenrath and Christensen called on two different students at the same time. The two looked at each other, laughed and quickly moved on, finding a natural rhythm as they explained an assignment in tandem.
"It's whatever works in the moment," Grotenrath later said of co-teaching, adding it was not a hard adjustment to learn the new practice. She and Christensen have been co-teaching since last fall. "It was a welcome relief to have another adult who is a professional and shares the same philosophy."
Not all co-teaching pairs have found it so easy though. Most teachers agree they and their students have benefited by having the expertise of two educators in the classroom; but it can be a hard change moving from having one teacher do everything to having two share the job, said Laura Delagrange, part of a former co-teaching pair who now goes around the district teaching others how to co-teach successfully.
"It's a huge change from yours and mine to now everybody is ours," Delagrange said. "People have adapted really, really well."
Delagrange couldn't say how many Unified classrooms have co-teaching because it depends on a school's population. If a school has two first-graders classified as special education, they would likely be placed in the same co-teaching classroom. If the same school has 14 special education second-graders, they would likely be split among two co-taught classrooms, Delagrange said.
She added the co-teachers generally are one regular education teacher and one special education teacher that splits time between two classrooms, making sure to be in each room during core lessons like reading and math.
Special education inclusion experts said they have no concerns about what happens when the special education teacher is not in a classroom. That's because co-teaching should allow the regular teacher to learn and imitate how the special education teacher works with certain students.
Racine Unified parents interviewed by The Journal Times said they were confident regular teachers could manage a classroom with special education students. Brittany Jones, a parent of two children at Jones Elementary School, 3300 Chicory Road, said a special education teacher's periodic presence should be enough to show regular teachers how to handle all students.
"As long as you have an extra teacher sometimes I don't see any problem," said Jones, a 25-year old certified nursing assistant from Racine.
Christensen and Grotenrath said they don't see any problem either. What they do see are positive changes. Christensen said through co-teaching and inclusion, her special education students last year made marked gains on state tests, started feeling more comfortable with social interaction and began applying things they learned like vocabulary words. Christensen and Grotenrath said they expect those same gains with this year's students.
"It was such a great experience (last year) and I'm thinking this year will be too," Grotenrath said. "I would not go back."