Beth Lakretz On True Inclusion In SchoolsMay 24, 2022
Season 1: Episode 15
In the fifteenth episode of Hey Awesome Girl with Tivi Jones, you’ll meet Founder & President of Lakretz Creative Services Beth Lakretz, who has dedicated her career to inclusive education.
At the age of 13, Beth Lakretz read a book called “Son Rise: The Miracle Continues,” a true story about a father who was learning how to communicate with his son diagnosed with autism. This story captivated the young Beth so much, that she decided to become a social worker and work with kids with autism.
Later in her life, she became a special education teacher and then founded her business, Lakretz Creative Services, consulting the schools on how to support and include special needs children in their neighborhood schools. In September of this year, Lakretz services will be celebrating its 30th year in business.
In this episode, Beth talks about true inclusion, the ecosystem of exclusion, and the modern-day segregation of people with disabilities. It’s a rich and powerful episode that will arm you with a deeper understanding of children with disabilities and make you think about how to be a better ally.
Beth received her bachelor's in Social work from Cornell University and was determined to become a social worker until her junior year of college when she realized it was not for her. Her professor at Cornell introduced her to his friend at Syracuse University who taught a program specialized in the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education, with a focus on students with autism and emotional disturbance. Beth ended up getting her master’s in Special Education from Syracuse.
“It was the most remarkable place and I learned basically everything that I know,” she says about the program.
After graduating from Syracuse, Beth moved back home to Long Island, NY, where at the time, children with disabilities were not included in general education classrooms. She taught at a school for a year as a special education self-contained teacher. Later, she successfully collaborated with a teacher who was willing to integrate her typical class with Beth’s class. However, the administration of the school wasn’t supportive and Beth left.
She got recruited to teach at a pre-school program that was trying to integrate and teach kids without disabilities and kids with autism. She worked there for a couple of years but didn’t like the politics within the system, long hours, and most importantly, she felt like the school didn’t reflect her values of inclusion and seeing each human being as gifted. So Beth left and that’s how Lakretz Creative Services was born.
Beth’s team provides professional development for school districts. They work deeply with administrators on creating a mission and vision about inclusion and work with them on implementation, as well as educating teachers on how to work together to include kids.
The work comes with many barriers. There are some parents who don’t want their kids in the same classroom as kids with disabilities. The teachers have a lot of pressure too as in New York, their evaluations are connected to how well kids perform on standardized tests. They also lack knowledge on how to integrate a special-ed kid into their classroom.
“I say all the time that inclusion has nothing to do with the people that are being included or excluded. It’s only about the people who are in power around them,” Beth says.
She gives an example– when her company is hired to make the school more inclusive, everything goes well until there’s a change in leadership. If a new person comes into power who has a different philosophy– all of their work gets dismantled. It’s the same with teachers– one year a teacher will be excited to help and collaborate with a student, and the next year the same student will go to another classroom and this teacher might say– “this kid does not belong in my classroom.”
Beth says historically, people with disabilities have not been a group that has had a lot of power in our culture so there are some people with disabilities who prefer to be segregated. “I honor that and want to create a community in which everyone is valued and everyone understands each other so we can grow, work and play together. That's only gonna come through some level of proximity, education, and community,” she says.
Inclusion is very important to both Beth and her husband, who live on Long Island, NY. Their 14-year-old daughter is of color and they made sure to raise her in a diverse community so she doesn’t feel like “the only one” or “the other.”
“I have learned a tremendous amount of what it is like to be a white mama parenting a non-white girl,” Beth says. “I think my inclusion perspective that I’ve carried all these years carries to her.”
Sometimes Beth wishes she didn’t know that much about education so it would be easier to parent. She frequently finds herself noticing the ways teachers could improve their instruction.
“If it’s something my daughter really needs, I’m out there advocating for her but I can’t tell teachers how to teach at a parents-teachers conference,” she says.
Terms constantly evolve and Beth has a lot to say about them.
“All of our concern about using the right words, the right pronouns, the right titles, the right descriptors is almost getting in our way of being real and raw and screwing up,” Beth says.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to use the right pronouns. Using someone's correct gender pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show respect for someone’s identity.
Beth gives an example of terms that change.
“There are so many people now who want to be called disabled people. We worked so many years on person-first language and now that’s flipping. But who wants it flipped? Who doesn't want it flipped? We are going to screw up in our languaging,” Beth acknowledges.
She says people use the word “retard” carelessly. “They don’t realize the word is so derogatory. And I have to say– do you know what that word connotates? Do you know where it originated? The way people toss that word around has so much to say about people with cognitive differences, people who don’t function exactly the same way as them,” Beth says.
She thinks of people as ignorant rather than mean and says it’s okay to mess up if you can correct yourself.
“Sometimes I get slammed for saying that I do inclusion because my work is not DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion],” Beth says. “I’m not qualified to address race issues but has it been infused in the work that we do? Of course– over-representation of kids of color in special-ed is very well documented.”
Beth has asked some people who work in DEI if they could include disability in there. “In some instances, the DEI work has left disability on the side.”
She says she’s been navigating not being offensive and not stepping on very important concepts but at the same time asks – “How do we continue providing spaces for people with disabilities? And for kids to be in positions where they graduate from high school with friends, have options, and get invited to birthday parties and aren’t made fun of when they drop their tray in the cafeteria?”
CHILDREN OF COLOR IN SPECIAL NEEDS CLASSES
Beth says many states and school districts have identified about 10 percent of the population as people with disabilities and there are places that have way more than 10 percent in their school system. “So that’s a red flag– why are all these kids getting labeled and identified?” she says. “And then out of that 10 percent, the percentage of kids of color are over the percentage of kids of color in that neighborhood,” she adds.
To demonstrate why she thinks some children of color may be labeled as “special needs,” Beth gives an example she learned in her race class at Cornell years ago– still relevant today. The professor at Cornell talked about the inherent bias in IQ testing. One of the questions in the test was– “Take these four letters and unscramble them into a word that will give you a sport. And the letters are OOPL.” The right answer was polo. Many kids wouldn’t even know what polo is; “pool” was marked incorrect.
“So there’s classism, there’s racism, there’s privilege – there’s a lot of stuff built into the system. I’m sure that question doesn't exist anymore but that's just an example that I learned back in the day about how the education system is set up as a white, privileged system and we haven’t made a lot of accommodations. And so it’s very easy for kids of color to end up being labeled as special-ed at a higher rate,” Beth says.
Determining if a child has special needs varies state by state but ultimately, if they are referred to special-ed, they need to take a lot of tests– a combination of achievement and IQ tests. Beth says she’s not an expert in testing and she’s sure they’ve improved, but that she “can’t imagine they are 100 percent bias-free yet.”
She emphasizes that it is important to see a child as a whole person and to consider their background– what’s going on at home, mental health, etc. She says that sometimes being labeled as “special needs” is good because then a child can receive the extra help they need, but other times it’s unnecessary.
“During the pandemic, the number of kids who have been referred to special education is off the charts because they “fell behind” but everyone fell behind– it’s the pandemic!” Beth says.
“The pandemic has caused mental health issues, food scarcity, families dealing with illnesses, death, and losses of jobs– so how can that not impact the kids?” she asks.
BEING AN ALLY
Beth says the first step in becoming an ally for people with disabilities is meeting some. “Put yourself in a situation in which your kids interact with other kids with disabilities. When you see a mom in Target or a playground, smile and ask: are you ok?”
She says it’s important to make space in your heart for the fact that there are people who function in the world very differently and that’s ok. Reading, listening to a podcast, and following someone’s Facebook page– are all great steps. Beth has been following Facebook groups where moms share their experiences raising children with disabilities. She also says there have been more shows featuring autistic actors playing autistic people.
And finally, she says, “Put yourself in situations where you’re the only one, for a change.”
Enjoy the full episode on:
Every week Tivi interviews amazing Boss Babes in tech, medicine, law, entrepreneurship, entertainment, parenting, and more about their lives, goals, and how every day, they are working to add more Pleasure, Ease, and Abundance in their orbit.
This show is part business advice, part life coaching, and part real talk with girlfriends. If you’re looking for a show that’s real and relatable but also inspiring at the same time, Hey Awesome Girl with Tivi Jones is the one for you!
Learn more about Beth Lakretz:
Lakretz Creative Support Services website: lakretz.com
Lakretz Creative Support Services Facebook: @LCSSinlcudingall
TV Show: As We See It on Amazon Prime
Book: Emergence: Labelled Autistic by Temple Grandin
Temple is autistic and is a world-renowned speaker. She can be controversial because she doesn’t have great things to say about autistic people who are more severely affected. She’s got a Ph.D. in animal husbandry. Emergence describes how she felt as a little girl.
Website: Notanautismmom.com has a list of 100 or so books on neurodiversity.
Including Samuel by Daniel Habib, includes his son with Cerebral Palsy, is a wonderful film to see.
Crip Camp – documentary nominated for an Oscar in 2021
Featured in this episode:
Demi Vitkute is a Media Manager & Producer at Hey Awesome. She’s a passionate storyteller, fashion aficionado + crazy cat mom trying to change the world. She’s a journalist, editor, and media consultant. Demi is the founder of The Urban Watch Magazine and has written for The Washington Post, Inside Hook, and Promo Magazine, among others. You can follow her on IG and Twitter @demiivit.