An Ethnographic Study of a Special Education School
The Harris-Hillman Story
The purpose of this study was to describe, using the tools of ethnography and qualitative research, selected events in the history of a public special education school and its school culture. The year of the study, 1994-1995, the school served 125 students with cerebral palsy and other disabilities affecting some or all of their physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities.
Study participants included faculty and staff, former students, parents, school administrators, and others identified with the school and in the Nashville community during the 1994-1995 school year. In-depth interviews with study participants, on-site observations, semi-structured interviews with informants, document, and archival research were used to create five collective tales based on stories of those who knew the school best between 1975 and 1995.
This is a story of one special education school's founding, success, and survival. In recent years, the local school system closed 5 of 7 special education schools, its own K-12 school enrollment declined, and rumors it too would soon close. The story presents a saga of success and survival as the school faced a new social construction of schooling called the "inclusive schools movement."
By applying institutional theory to the study of organizations, this study offers an explanation of how one special education school survived the inclusion movement by adapting to societal demands and by maintaining certain environmental elements considered important to school survival. This study provides a number of stories which serve as evidence of how the continuum of services for students with disabilities continues to work as inclusion efforts in some public schools often go awry.
This study investigated (1) events beginning with the school's founding in 1975, (2) school success and survival using institutional theory and organizational analysis, and (3) the school as a model day school in special education's continuum or Cascade of Services. At the time of this study, the inclusive schools movement was believed to be responsible for declining enrollments at Harris-Hillman, increasing numbers of students with disabilities being placed in other public and private schools, and rumors the school would soon be closed.
Study results offer a collection of stories from one educational setting over two decades. Discussion of these stories is followed by study conclusions that provide support for special education schools and a continuum of service and placement options for students in need of special settings with appropriate curricular content and instruction. It is a unique story of a special education school and its history over 20 years between 1975 and 1995.