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March 3, 2011

CONTACT: K.E. Schwab




SRU faculty contingent helps school understand inclusion       


SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – A contingent of four Slippery Rock University education faculty spent five days in St. Thomas and St. Croix, Virgin Islands, helping school administrators there better understand the necessity and dynamics of incorporating students with special needs into the general classroom.

            The four Joseph Merhaut, Richael Barger-Anderson and Jodi Katsafanas, all assistant professors in SRU’s department of special education, and Robert Snyder, associate professor of elementary education and early childhood education, were invited to present at the Virgin Islands Department of Education Winter Summit. The group presented on inclusionary practices with an emphasis on co-teaching in the classroom.

            “This was a great opportunity to talk with about 40 administrators at schools on the two islands and to show them the benefits of integrating students with special needs in to the general classroom. We encouraged ways to continue their tried to get them to consider integrating even more children with mild learning disabilities into the general classroom,” Merhaut said.

            The Virgin Islands are a U.S. territory. Schools there are working to follow federal education guidelines, Merhaut said.

            “The schools are very open to the idea of inclusion,” he said.

            The system of co-teaching and inclusion is a trend being seen across the U.S. public school system.

            “We had opportunities to visit some of the classrooms to observe, but on this trip we did not get to actually work with the teachers. They have invited us back. On a future visit we hope to work more directly with the classroom teachers,” he said.

            Many U.S. states, including Pennsylvania, have pushed for integration of those with learning disabilities into the general classroom.

            “We have found that many students with disabilities benefit greatly from the integration,” Merhaut said. “They are trying to work out the details and what is best for their students.”

            The SRU contingent presented on scheduling tactics, co-teaching concepts and evaluation tactics.

            “What we found was a cultural clash. I was surprised to see that many of the teachers of special education students in schools on both islands were of Filipino descent. The regular, or general education, classroom teachers were mostly native Virgin Islanders. I don’t know why or how the separation came about,” he said.

            He said the islands’ schools were very similar to those in the states, including 12 grades, except, “all of the students wear uniforms.”

            Most of the schools’ teachers were either educated in the U.S. or at the University of the Virgin Islands. “It is a beautiful University, but, in reality, only about 14 percent of the island’s high school graduates go on to college. It is very expensive and because of low incomes on the islands is out of reach for many. There are just not enough options and opportunities for the graduates. They are confined to the island and there is only one university. Their resources are very limited, especially in coming to the U.S.,” he said.

            “We found their classrooms filled with students who are very respectful, polite and engaged. I did not see classroom management problems, which is something we typically look for. They treat their students with special needs very well, and, like in the states, allow them to continue their education until they reach age 21 if necessary,” Merhaut said. “They are practicing inclusion. As with most schools in the U.S., they need more training. This is an on-going initiative. We are hoping to return to actually train the teachers.”

            All of the classrooms viewed by the SRU team saw were high-tech with appropriate equipment “But I did not see specialized technology for those with special needs like we have in SRU’s Assistive Technologies Laboratory where students learn to use computer-assisted programs to aid learning for those with disabilities,” he said.

            About 8 percent of the schools’ population in the islands requires special education services.

            “Most of their students with special needs are not part of the general classroom, but are educated in separate classes,” he said.

            Inclusion plans also require parental support. Merhaut said,

            “We know when exposure to general classrooms is undertaken, the students with special needs will benefit,” he said.


Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania’s premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.