Campus: CSU Northridge -- April 14, 2004

CSUN Students, Faculty Take Part in an Educational Revolution

In classrooms across the San Fernando Valley, Cal State Northridge students and faculty are taking part in an educational revolution.

Under the auspices of the CHIME Institute, students and faculty are putting into practice every day the philosophy that each child-whether she is gifted, typical or has a disability-is an individual, and it is the teachers who must shape their practices to ensure that the child gets an education.

"Our goal is to make sure that every child is looked at as an individual, whether she has a disability or is gifted. If a child has a strength in a particular area and an area of weakness, we address that as well," said Wendy Murawski, an assistant professor of special education at Northridge and director of research for the institute. "We take off the labels as much as possible and just look at the children as individuals, and we meet their needs as educators by working together and using the different areas of expertise we have."

That educational model is carried out every day by Cal State Northridge students, faculty and alums working as teachers, paraprofessionals and student assistants at CHIME Charter Elementary School in Woodland Hills, CHIME Charter Middle School in Northridge and in the university's own lab school in the Center for Child and Family Studies, or as consultants and educators with the institute's infant and toddler program.

"What's happening is really quite amazing," said Sally Spencer, a teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District who is currently teacher-in-residence in CSUN's Department of Special Education. "These schools are models of excellent inclusive education that can really work, and are providing the opportunity for hundreds of CSUN students to observe, participate in research and work with kids in fully inclusive classrooms. And it's having a ripple effect on how people see children."

The CHIME Institute for Children with Special Needs was started in 1987 by special education professors Claire Cavallaro and Michele Haney with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. They needed a demonstration site for teaching CSUN students about the merits of "mainstreaming" children with disabilities into regular classrooms, and there wasn't one in the area.

"So we decided to create one," said Cavallaro, now chief of staff for Northridge President Jolene Koester.

Over the years, the institute has grown to include an infant/toddler program, which provides support, education, therapies and assessment to families with infants and toddlers with special needs, and the elementary and middle schools.

The institute is an independent entity, but it is closely affiliated with CSUN's Michael D. Eisner College of Education. Many Northridge faculty members volunteer their time to administer and oversee its programs, and to develop new programs.

Cal State Northridge undergraduates from departments across campus, as well as teacher credential candidates, have an opportunity to participate in or just observe any of the CHIME Institute's programs. The elementary school also serves as an inclusive education demonstration site for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Julie Fabrocini, principal of CHIME Charter Elementary School and a lecturer in the Eisner College of Education, is a former teacher and administrator with LAUSD. When she was a teacher, she said, she and her colleagues were given little, if any, support or training in serving children with a wide range of abilities in their classrooms.

"Even five or seven years ago, we'd go into our classrooms and shut the door and no one would know if we fell flat on our faces or not," she said. "It was a real challenge to general educators to give them children with a real variety of learning differences, particularly without any support or training."

Fabrocini said CHIME's model provides teachers with the training and additional classroom support they need-including a co-teacher trained in special education, paraprofessionals (teacher's aides) and student teachers-so they can identify the unique ways a child learns and tailor their curriculum to fit that child's needs. There is also an opportunity each day for the teachers at each CHIME site to sit down and exchange ideas on how to do things better in the classroom.

Spencer said the concept of having enough support in the classroom to deal with the individual needs of each child, as well as having a network of colleagues to consult with about best practices on a daily basis, can be quite revolutionary for a lot of teachers.

"It's not that they (teachers from typical schools) are bad teachers. I haven't met a single person yet who entered education and didn't truly care about children," she said. "It's just that they've never been exposed to a successful model of inclusive education. Once they see what CHIME is doing, it really opens their minds to the possibilities."

Kate McNeil, who is getting her master's degree in special education with an emphasis in educational therapy, agreed. She spent several days last fall observing at the elementary school.

"It was inspiring," McNeil said. "It seems such a benefit to all the kids. There was no shortage of attention for any of the kids. It was multi-sensory as well as respectful of all the children's individual abilities. It was diversity in every sense of the word. How lucky the kids are. CHIME is absolutely the way it should be."

In the classrooms and playgrounds at the Lab School and the elementary and middle schools, the fact that an educational revolution is taking place barely registers with the children.

Kids, some in wheelchairs and some not, yell with delight over games in their colorful play structures. They sit side by side at tables and desks working on spelling lessons, art projects or in computer labs.

To the children at Lab School and CHIME Charter Elementary and Middle schools, it's just another day.

Contact: Carmen Ramos Chandler, (818) 677-2130, carmen.chandler@csun.edu


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