Increasingly, school districts across Long Island are keeping students with Down syndrome and other disabilities in regular schools - a shift from just a few years ago, when many more of those students would have been sent to special centers.

Officials say the change has been brought about, in part, by a generation of parents and teachers who believe in "inclusive" education. At the same time, tightened federal disability laws demand that schools mainstream as many children as possible.

In 2001-02, for example, 9.3 percent of all Long Island students with disabilities were in separate settings, meaning they were educated only with other students with disabilities, according to the state Department of Education. That number fell to 5.5 percent this academic year.

And that's indicative of a "growing trend" across the country, said Stephanie Smith Lee, senior policy adviser for the National Down Syndrome Society's Policy Center.

"The whole key is to . . . lower the percentage in segregated settings and be in the least restrictive or more inclusive settings,"said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

Advocates of inclusion say disabled students who remain in their home schools are more likely to try a range of after-school clubs while learning from the rest of the students in classes.

"It's important that these children be given the social as well as intellectual opportunities that they might not get from being in a homogeneous setting," said Rosemary Jones, superintendent of the Sayville schools and former president of the Suffolk County Superintendents Association.

In the Sayville school district, for example, two students with Down syndrome attend the public schools. Jones said when she started as an assistant superintendent in the district 13 years ago, those students probably would have been sent to programs run by BOCES and other outside programs.

Jones said teachers notice "sparks of light" from disabled students who interact with classmates, and she and others said all students benefit from mainstreaming.

"Including disabled children in their local schools is the right thing to do, and at the same time the other children understand the amazing things these kids can do, given the opportunities," she said.

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