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Allegheny County schools pilot grant-funded disabilities inclusion curriculum

Wheelchairs in a row.
India Krug
90.5 WESA
Three Allegheny County school districts are working this year to foster a more inclusive environment for students with disabilities.

Three Allegheny County school districts are working this year to foster a more inclusive environment for students with disabilities.

Teachers at South Park, Hampton Township and South Fayette school districts will pilot lessons that shine a light on inclusion with help from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The agency is granting 10 school districts statewide up to $30,000 over three years to participate in its Disability Inclusive Curriculum Pilot Program, aimed at reducing the stigma associated with disabilities by incorporating them into classroom lessons.

Laurie Tocci, principal at Hampton Township School District, said teachers there will receive additional training as they roll out the new curriculum.

“It's doing for our special ed kids what we do for our non-special ed students, which is finding their strengths and taking advantage of those,” Tocci said. “And then helping them use those strengths to feel confident in all aspects of the school day.”

The Department of Education released a toolkit for educators in the pilot program this month, with lesson plans, school assembly suggestions and book selections. Each is meant to address one or more aspects of the school environment, such as classroom instruction, schoolwide messaging and student body activities.

Districts participating in the program will conduct an “environmental scan” of their school facilities to determine ways to make them more inclusive and accessible.

“As we infuse more information about disabilities and the accomplishments of individuals with disabilities, I do think that will also help with that sense of belonging,” Dr. Sharon Smith, who oversees special education across the Hampton Township School District.

Educators say more inclusive lessons are of increasing importance in school. In Allegheny County, 25,450 students were enrolled in special education services during the 2021-2022 school year, up from 23,881 during the 2017-2018 school year.

Across Pennsylvania, 20.2% of the state’s 1.8 million students learn with a disability.

“We've seen definitely an increase in those needs of students,” said Rachel Andler, who oversees student support services in the South Fayette Township School District. “I always say COVID did us not very many favors, and it highlighted a lot of things that students needed due to the lack of services that were available at the time.”

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According to Andler, nearly 12% of all students in the South Fayette School District receive special education services — up from 8.5% pre-pandemic.

Andler said while the district tries to incorporate students with a diversity of disabilities into lessons, there’s still work to be done to foster a sense of belonging in all students.

“We recognize that [lessons are] not across all disabilities, and not reflective of all of our students,” Andler said. “So we want to make sure that students can see themselves in their curriculum materials.”

Andler said that starts with building out the district’s curriculum. Once they do, she said those lessons will be incorporated into the district’s schools far beyond the three-year pilot program.

Corrected: August 21, 2023 at 8:01 AM EDT
This article was adjusted to correct that Dr. Smith and Dr. Tocci work in Hampton Township School District, not South Park School District.
Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.