Adam Nystrom remembers being taunted by classmates in middle school for needing so many special-education courses.
“They’d say, ‘Oh, that’s the retard class,’ and everybody would laugh,” recalls Adam, who suffers from a learning disorder that impedes reading ability. “I wouldn’t really say anything because there isn’t anything funny about it.”
Adam, now 20 years old, spent a tumultuous 13 years in the local public-school system. He played pranks on teachers and disrupted lectures with a talking pen that delivered punch lines from the movie “Napoleon Dynamite.” At Choctawhatchee High School, he struggled to pass Florida’s mandatory graduation test, taking the exam six times. Once, he drew a suspension.
But Adam’s academic journey ended in success. He became a varsity wrestler and was selected three times to be a part of the homecoming king and queen’s royal court. After graduating in 2006, he joined the Army, fulfilling a childhood dream.
A major force behind his turnabout: the school district’s program for mainstreaming special-education students into regular classrooms.
As the momentum for such programs has accelerated across the country, many have faced serious obstacles. Special-education students account for a disproportionate amount of discipline problems and sometimes commit violent acts. Teachers say they often lack the training and resources to handle them. Many parents have fought to keep schools and classrooms segregated, saying school administrators have used mainstreaming, also known as “inclusion,” as a pretext for cost cutting.
To free up funds for his special-education overhaul — which initially focused on elementary-school reading — Mr. Gaetz began by making deep cuts in central-office spending. He eliminated more than 40 administrative positions, saving the district about $6 million a year. Some displaced personnel took special-education positions in the schools, which were given additional funds and broad latitude to hire more psychologists, social workers and special-ed teachers as they saw fit. Educators say such site-based management of mainstreaming programs was rare at the time.