When 'Special' Isn't

July 10, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

More than 17,000 students in Baltimore city public schools are classified as special-education students, kids who have some kind of disability that makes learning more difficult. A lot of money -- federal, state and local -- is allocated to help the school system meet their needs. But judged by the quality of services these students receive, in many cases, all that money might as well be washed down the drain.

In city schools, particularly above the elementary level, most special education is a wasteland which virtually writes off a student's ability to achieve in school. Once labeled ''special-ed,'' students often get treated as little more than an afterthought in a system busy coping with a multitude of other crises.

The plight of special education in Baltimore city schools is extreme, but the city is certainly not alone in its failure to provide adequate services to these students. Precious few school systems around the country have learned the lesson that is at the heart of effective special education: responding to students as individuals, with unique temperaments, abilities, learning styles and needs.

But, in Maryland at least, the city does stand alone in one regard -- for the past 10 years it has been the target of a lawsuit charging it with failing to provide required services to special-education students. The suit alleged that the school system had failed to assess their needs properly and to pay attention to their Individual Education Plans, required for every student eligible for special-education services. Rather than standing trial, the school system accepted a consent decree, agreeing to meet the requirements of the law.

A decade is a long time in a child's life, but few people would claim that city schools are now doing significantly better by these students. However, events of recent months have been encouraging.

Earlier this year, state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick agreed to become a joint defendant in the suit, bringing to the negotiation process her skills at building consensus as well as considerable experience and a long-time professional commitment to higher quality in special education.

Then in April, U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey created an oversight team, consisting of Dr. Grasmick, city Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and Mark Mlawer, who represents the Maryland Disability Law Center, the advocacy group that filed the lawsuit.

This past week, Judge Harvey clarified the team's authority. He issued an order giving the team a voice in any staffing decision above the level of teacher that could affect special-education services.

The order, effective through June 1995, was carefully crafted to preserve both the school system's authority and the integrity of the oversight process. It avoids giving outside parties an outright veto over school decisions, but it also steers clear of the equally dubious alternative of completely taking away Dr. Amprey's authority over special-education services.

The result is a process that functions like a warning flag. A member of the team who has doubts about a particular decision has 10 days in which to ask the judge to review it.

If the team members continue to collaborate and cooperate, as they seem to be doing now, the process could benefit everybody. Clearly, the city needs help straightening out its special-education programs, and both Dr. Grasmick and Mr. Mlawer have perspectives and responsibilities that ought to be taken into account in that process.

And, even though school officials are always eager for more special-education money, the sad state of these services cannot attributed to inadequate funding. According to a report issued by Students First, a local group working for improvements in Baltimore schools, city schools spent $122 million on special-education instruction in 1991-92. Only about $50 million of that came from state and federal funds designated for special education, with the rest allocated from the general budget.

The problem goes far beyond budgets to a lack of interest, training and commitment.

Teachers who are properly trained and given strong support can make a world of difference in the life of a child who carries the special-education label. Likewise, parents who are given information about their child's needs and how the special-education system functions can act as effective advocates, prodding the schools to do better.

It's popular in education circles these days to repeat the mantra that all children can learn. But anyone who has ever known a child knows the truth of that proverb.

What isn't so clear is whether school systems can also learn. For Baltimore city schools, special education may pose the ultimate test.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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