Short-Changing Children in the Name of 'Inclusion'

MICHAEL K. BURNS

June 14, 1993|By MICHAEL K. BURNS

An experiment in chaos is being formulated in Baltimore County schools, as the administration pushes learning-disabled students into mainstream classrooms this fall without any plans or teacher training to meet their special needs.

Although claiming that their sweeping ''inclusion'' model is required by a federal civil-rights complaint, the real motivation of administrators at the Greenwood headquarters is to save money by short-changing disadvantaged children who desperately need the attention traditionally denied them in regular classroom settings.

In this monstrous distortion of federal and Maryland laws that require school systems to provide services for the individual needs of these students, Baltimore County is rapidly moving to dismantle its distinguished schools for special-education youngsters. Most youngsters are to be moved out of these Level 5 special schools by next year.

The school administration says that its abrupt move toward ''inclusion'' of all students in regular classrooms and schools was mandated by a U.S. Department of Education warning prompted by some parents who wanted their children to be integrated into regular classrooms in neighborhood schools.

Indeed, the laws do require the ''least restrictive environment'' for educating handicapped students. Certainly, students who can function and learn with assistance in regular schools should have that opportunity. Numbers of children move out of Baltimore County's special-education schools into regular classrooms each year; few of them return to the special schools because, happily, they have progressed sufficiently to make the transition.

Unfortunately, that is not the case with many of the children in the county's Level 5 elementary schools. They have relatively low IQs, are years behind their chronological peers in aptitude, communicate poorly, suffer from physical impairments (not always readily apparent), and have attention-deficit problems that cannot be effectively addressed in regular classrooms.

To suggest that these children will receive needed services in their regular neighborhood schools, as school system cheerleaders have dissembled at parent meetings, is totally unrealistic.

It chooses to ignore the integrated fabric of multiple services that allows these children to learn at a different pace, with instructional and health supports, and to attain a meaningful education. Concentration of these resources in special-ed schools, rather than dispersal, is clearly more efficient and effective.

A single special reading or math tutorial class each day will not provide these disabled children with either the skills or the confidence to fully participate in the rest of the regular class' schedule.

A segregated special-ed class, whose pupils only eat lunch or have recess with regular students, emphasizes rather than minimizes the social differences.

For normal students in that ''inclusion'' classroom, it's also an unhappy prospect. Their parents fear less attention will be given to the ''unneeding'' pupils, that classroom standards will be lowered, that the repetition of material for the learning-disabled will yield to boredom and frustration for the others.

School Superintendent Stuart Berger ordered this transition in nine months, without planning or community involvement or teacher training. Other counties in Maryland are addressing the issue, but with foresight and forethought. Howard and Montgomery counties have five-year plans. In Baltimore County, the school board told inquiring parents to use legal channels if they objected.

The program saves the school board money. If some disabled students must be mainstreamed because of the threat of losing federal funds, then bring in all learning- impaired students to the regular classrooms to doubly demonstrate a good-faith response.

Never mind that there is no cohesive program, plan or services to meet the different needs of these learning-disabled students. Local schools ''profit'' from extra funds for their special-ed kids.

In a shameful guilt-shifting campaign, the administration accuses parents of segregating their learning-disabled children from mainstream kids. That is sheer nonsense: They play at home or day care, in recreation programs, Sunday schools, playgrounds with other children.

The argument is not about equality, either. The system will retain ''gifted and talented'' programs, ensuring special classes for those best adapted to cope while denying it to those least able.

The perverse approach by Baltimore County is seen in its agenda set after signing a consent agreement with the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights in January.

The agency's complaints did not cite children in Chatsworth and White Oak special schools, but those were the two schools targeted for immediate dismantling by the Berger regime. At Chatsworth, 84 of 100 teachers' positions have been eliminated; at least two-thirds of the 300 students there will be moved to neighborhood schools this fall. At White Oak, 36 positions have been cut and the number of learning-disabled classes cut by two-thirds.

By eviscerating its Level 5 schools, Baltimore County will not resolve its legal problems. It faces a class-action lawsuit, from parents who argue that dumping their learning-disabled children in regular schools, with untrained teachers, does not provide the ''free appropriate public education . . . to meet their unique needs'' required by federal law.

Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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