Linda Rinaldi recalls facing a roomful of experts from Miami-Dade Public Schools — therapists, psychologists, a teacher and school principal.
They had spent the year testing and tracking Rinaldi’s daughter, Raffaella — a preschooler with a host of disabilities. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t make eye contact. She wore diapers and was fed from a stomach tube.
All of the experts agreed: With “Raffy” headed into kindergarten, she should be separated from the mainstream, tucked away in a classroom that catered to the most severely disabled.
From the beginning, Raffy had overcome grim odds — battling breathing failures that left her blue after birth and surviving surgeries that doctors warned she was too fragile to endure. It was Rinaldi’s turn to fight. She wanted Raffy to learn in a regular classroom with non-disabled children.
“Give her a chance. Give her six months,” Rinaldi demanded. “Mom knows best sometimes.”
Indeed. Raffy, now 9 and in third grade at Ruth K. Broad Bay Harbor K-8 Center, recently won national recognition: a “Yes I Can” award from the advocacy group Council for Exceptional Children. She reads, writes and does basic math — right alongside her typically developing peers, and often at the same level of difficulty.
“My favorite subject is math,” Raffy said. “I have some friends.”
The Miami-Dade school district declined to allow the Miami Herald to observe Raffy during a school day, though her parents supported the request. But one of her teachers, Mary Montano, described Raffy as a thriving student whose ability to learn constantly surprises her. Raffy volunteers to read out loud and answer questions at the whiteboard, Montano said, and she’s quick with a hug for her classmates.
“This little girl, she can go places,” Montano said.
Rinaldi said her daughter is an example of how students with special needs can succeed when given the chance and support from schools. But many times, they are not.
Federal law calls for children with disabilities to be educated in the “least restrictive” setting possible, rather than secluding them in classrooms where everyone has special needs. The percentage of disabled students who are in regular classroom settings is sometimes called the “inclusion rate,” and Miami-Dade County’s is below other big districts in Florida.
“This is an area where we can improve,” said Magaly Abrahante, the assistant superintendent overseeing Miami-Dade’s Exceptional Student Education department.
There are 34,000 students with disabilities in Miami-Dade schools. Of those, 73 percent were in regular classrooms last year, state records show. In neighboring Broward County, 81 percent of students were mainstreamed — far above the state average of 74 percent.
Still, Miami-Dade has made huge gains. Just two years ago, 50 percent of students with disabilities were integrated into a regular classroom setting. The district’s low inclusion rate made Miami-Dade a target of state review.
Elizabeth Cramer, director of special education at Florida International University’s education school, said inclusion decisions should be made on a student-by-student basis — and not to meet percentage targets. Some parents may prefer secluded classrooms where they feel their child will get more one-on-one attention.
But when parents do opt for inclusion, the battle is often hard-fought, said Lauren Bustos. As a manager for the nonprofit group Parent to Parent, she advocates for families who have disabled children in Miami-Dade public schools.
“Only those parents who rise up are the ones who will truly get the services and support for their child,” she said. “It’s sad, but it’s the truth.”
What type of classroom a student winds up in, and what kinds of extra help or modifications the student gets, are decided by a team. Teachers, therapists, parents, lawyers and advocates are all involved. The process has its own unfamiliar jargon and is bound in layers of federal, state and district requirements. It’s emotionally fraught for parents, and it can be intimidating, Bustos said.
Abrahante, the district’s head of exceptional student education, took over the department this school year. She said Miami-Dade is working to improve the parent experience by training staff and bringing in outside resources to help families beyond the schoolhouse.
“It’s so important to make parents comfortable,” she said.
Advocates say the attitudes of individual principals and the climate at each school can make a huge difference. That was the case for Raffy.
Maria Rodriguez, the principal at Ruth K. Broad, was in the meeting to determine where Raffy would be placed for kindergarten. She listened to Rinaldi insist on a general eduction setting for her daughter.
“I said, ‘You know what? Let’s give it a shot,’ ” Rodriguez remembers. “I think people need to be open to giving kids a chance, and not automatically putting barriers in.”
Today, Raffy loves learning so much that she asks her mother to take her to school on Sundays. At home, she likes to toss giant foam dice and quickly read the numbers. She adds them in her head before proudly announcing the answer.
All of this from a girl who was not supposed to survive infancy, let alone thrive.
“I never thought I’d hear her say, ‘Mom,’ ” Rinaldi said.
Raffy was born after a normal, full-term pregnancy. Shortly after giving birth, Rinaldi waited and waited for her baby girl to be brought back to the room. When she didn’t come, Rinaldi walked down to the nursery and learned Raffy was having trouble breathing.
“All night, I was saying: ‘She’s blue. Something’s wrong. She’s not breathing,’ ” Rinaldi said.
The next two months were a blur of long stays in the intensive care unit. Rinaldi’s new daughter was too frail to even touch. She stopped breathing without warning, suffered massive brain bleeds and was placed in a coma.
The medical complications she suffered in infancy left Raffy with brain damage due to lack of oxygen. She couldn’t even bend her limbs until she was 3 years old, or talk until she was about 5. A medical professional who evaluated Raffy when she was in pre-kindergarten wrote: “She is going to be in special education, probably not a candidate for competitive employment, or ever independent living.”
Now, she can eat solid foods and loves to play basketball. Her parents have put Raffy in every kind of therapy imaginable. But the thing that Rinaldi thinks has made a true difference is Raffy’s chance to learn in a regular classroom, where her peers serve as role models and expectations are higher.
“Inclusion works,” Rinaldi said.
She acknowledges that Raffy’s education will eventually have to shift to teaching her basic life skills. In the meantime, Rinaldi plans to become an advocate for inclusion and more funding for special-needs children in school.
“Getting one kid out of special education can change a life,” she said.