Special schools fall victim to 'inclusion' Some parents fear disabled youths will suffer

June 13, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

With speech problems and delayed motor skills, Jonatha Turkel had some unhappy days in the classroom.

Then he was assigned to Chatsworth, a special education school in Reisterstown that serves youngsters with learning disabilities and emotional problems.

Now the 8-year-old "is so happy when he goes to school" and comes home singing songs, says his mother, Channa Turkel.

Jonathan is not alone. Many students and parents are fans of Chatsworth, with its small classes, nurturing staff, family camaraderie and mother lode of services to help its youngsters. Even administrators call it a phenomenon and a "special, special school."

Next year, however, there won't be much left of Chatsworth as it is today.

More than 75 percent of its students will be scattered among 30 regular schools, and its staff will be dispersed as Baltimore County moves toward "inclusion," educational jargon for educating disabled children alongside their nondisabled peers.

It's an issue laden with emotion for parents who have fought hard to bring their disabled children into the mainstream, and those who have fought just as hard to keep their youngsters in the protective environment of special schools.

Baltimore County has stuck with segregated schools for the disabled long after they were discarded elsewhere. But even those who favor inclusion say the county is now moving too fast, putting youngsters into programs that exist only on paper and into neighborhood schools that aren't ready for them.

Altogether, the county's five special education centers, known as Level 5 schools, house 1,200 students with serious physical and mental handicaps. Children with lesser problems are in a variety of programs in regular school buildings.

All are affected

All the special schools will lose students and staff next year, but none to the extent of Chatsworth.

* At White Oak, in the central part of the county, 150 of the school's 376 students will be leaving, along with 18 teachers.

* At Battle Monument, in the eastern part of the county, 55 of the school's 203 children will be moved, said Marjorie Rofel, the school system's director of special education.

The affiliated Eastwood Center, for older students with disabilities, is expected to be converted to a school for disruptive middle school students. Its youngsters probably will go to Battle Monument or other schools.

* At Ridge/Ruxton in Towson, about 50 of this year's 220 children will be moved to other programs.

* At the Rolling Road School on the west side, about 50 of 250 students will be relocated.

Why so many students are suddenly being moved out of Chatsworth is not clear, although angry parents say it's a matter of expediency: the seats were needed for regular students from other schools.

"They did not have any magic number from me," says Steve Walts, assistant superintendent for the northwest area. "I asked the principal to take a look at the students . . . to determine whether they were truly in the least-restrictive environment. As the year went on, it ended up being a lot of kids [for whom] a least-restrictive environment would be a different environment."

Mr. Walts and Ms. Rofel deny that the decision to move 200 children out of Chatsworth had anything to do with air quality problems at nearby Deer Park Elementary. But Deer Park children will move to Chatsworth while their school is repaired next year.

Though parents are divided over the issue of inclusion, they are unified in their bitter complaints about how the schools are handling the transition.

"We know tens and tens of parents who are depressed, who are beside themselves," said Cheryl Lisker, the mother of a learning-disabled child.

Parents say school administrators didn't tell them what was coming and offered few answers about what programs would replace the special schools.

Some allege that to speed up the process, teachers have been told "to lie" on students' Individual Education Plans -- the annual document that details how each child will be educated, what services the child needs and what goals the child is working on.

"They're writing the IEPs to accommodate the school system," Ms. Lisker said. She said she was asked to sign off on her son's plan with no details about the services he would receive. She refused.

Parents say children are being assigned to programs in regular schools that have been only vaguely defined -- some of which lump youngsters with many different disabilities in one class.

Worst of all, parents say, they have been brushed aside.

Indeed, when the Learning Disabilities Association of Metropolitan Baltimore tried to address the school board at a May 27 meeting, board President Rosalie Hellman interrupted the group well short of the 20 minutes it had been allotted, saying the presentation was inappropriate and too personal.

"I felt that my organization had been treated shabbily," said Irene Spencer, the association president. "I was very, very angry."

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