Baltimore County's integration of disabled students draws praise, censure

January 02, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

The mother of a second-grader moved from the Chatsworth School for learning-disabled youngsters to a neighborhood school was not happy.

"We have real problems," she told the Baltimore County school board. The second-grader feels isolated in her new classroom, and her teachers often are unprepared to deal with her disabilities, her mother said.

In contrast, the mother of a 4-year-old moved out of Chatsworth told a different story. "My child is doing very well," said Jean Considine. She said she wished every county student and parent had the kind of program she found at Reisterstown Elementary.

Two parents, two children, two different stories. That's the picture of special education in Baltimore County schools four months after the department began a controversial "inclusion" plan to shift disabled students from special centers to neighborhood schools.

The plan -- and the speed with which it was carried out -- tied up administrators, staff, lawyers, parents and students in anguished and often angry confrontations over the spring and summer.

The controversy led to an investigation by an independent task force that called the plan hasty and ill-conceived, a study by state education officials who backed their local colleagues, and an unusual intervention by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who visited two Baltimore County schools to talk privately with concerned teachers.

Now, midway through the school year, the reviews are mixed. Also, more changes are likely in the coming months.

Many parents are happy. Their children are accepted, they say, and thrilled to be in schools with football teams and choruses. They have role models for good behavior and academic achievement.

Other parents are unhappy and angry. Their children are badly placed, they say. They're lost in regular classrooms and embarrassed about not being able to keep up. Some no longer want to go to school.

Some teachers of regular classes are thrilled, calling their work with disabled youngsters the best experience of their professional lives.

Others say they are unprepared, poorly trained, overworked and frustrated because they can't reach all the youngsters in their classrooms.

But there's no disagreement that the picture is different from last year's.

The county's five special schools have only about half as many students as they had last school year -- 709, compared with 1,371. That means about 662 disabled students attend classes with students who are not disabled in a school system with more than 96,000 students. But the impact of those 662 youngsters extends far beyond their numbers.

A small group of their families and friends galvanized opinion against a system that seemed to them authoritarian, secretive and unresponsive. And the presence of those children throughout county schools, rather than in five special centers, is affecting the education of students without disabilities.

Teachers who already faced larger classes because of burgeoning enrollment and budget constraints sometimes found themselves with students they were not prepared to handle and classes with such a broad range of abilities that it made traditional teaching difficult.

Some teachers say they received training in handling their new students; others said the training consisted of little more than a pep talk.

At Padonia Elementary School, for instance, there is a fifth-grade class with 34 students. Eleven are in the gifted-and-talented program; two are disabled youngsters who formerly attended a special education school. In between are 21 others.

Their teacher, who taught disabled children until a few years ago, declined to be interviewed, but her principal, Dorothy Dorman, said, "We are trying to meet the needs of all these students."

Teachers are finding the changes "frustrating and very exhausting," said Ray Suarez, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. "Teachers always cope, but for the regular education teachers, there are not enough resources to go around, and the special education teachers are spread too thin."

Mr. Suarez said that most teachers favor inclusion and want to do it the right way, "but they are frustrated." He also said teachers have "been told [by administrators] to put on the best face" and not talk about inclusion.

"Most of them feel that there is a threat to their job security," he said.

Several teachers contacted for this story would not talk about their situations, even anonymously.

Superintendent Stuart Berger, whose do-it-now philosophy spurred the inclusion plan, concedes that teachers are under stress and that inclusion continues to be a major concern.

"Lots of [teachers] are very positive, and lots of them are complaining," he said. "It reaffirms for me that there are tremendous teachers here."

To those facing youngsters every day, big issues remain. "The question the teachers are asking themselves and me is, 'Am I providing the average and above-average child with the curriculum and the pacing they need?' " Mrs. Dorman said.

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