City schools must tackle special ed Public system labels excessive number of students disabled

'Writing off youngsters'

Misdirected youths may not have chance to catch up, succeed

February 09, 1997|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Of all the problems that have marred Baltimore's public school system, few have proved as intractable as those involving its disabled students.

For 13 years, under the gun of a federal lawsuit, the city has struggled to keep track of its special education students and provide them with services. A court-ordered bureaucracy -- court monitor, special administrator, management oversight team -- came to symbolize the management failure.

Now, if a court-brokered settlement on management and funding of city schools is approved by the General Assembly, a new school board and administration will have to address the city's two key problems in special education: the excessive number of students classified as disabled and their segregation from the general student body, which combine to create a serious strain on the education budget.

They will also have to address what many inside and outside the school system view as the cause of both -- too many students are put into special ed classes when what they really need is remedial academic help.

"It's not like there are two big problems, special ed and general ed," says Mark Mlawer, who represents disabled students in the federal lawsuit against the city that was part of November's court settlement.

"There's one major problem: What is wrong with general education and how do we fix it?" adds Mlawer, part of a three-member team monitoring the city's special education services.

In the past school year, Baltimore had 17,290 special education students, or 16 percent of its approximately 110,000-student enrollment. That compares with statewide and national averages of about 12 percent. School officials expect the number of special education students in Baltimore to exceed 18,000 this year, even as overall enrollment declines to a projected 104,000.

Clearly, one reason Baltimore has so many children in special education is the ravages of urban poverty ranging from crack babies to lead-poisoned children.

"I think we have a lot of impaired children," says Sister Kathleen Feeley, Baltimore's administrator for special education.

Still, that hardly explains why Baltimore has proportionally more special education than almost any other city. Among the country's largest urban school systems, only Boston and Oklahoma City had a higher percentage of disabled students than Baltimore, according to figures compiled three years ago by the Council of the Great City Schools, a lobbying and information group.

Because of large classes and ineffective curriculum, many impoverished children who enter school ill-prepared never catch up, outside experts and school officials agree. They say frustrated, overworked and undertrained teachers refer too many students to special education in hopes that they will get individual help and to get them out of regular classrooms.

"By the time [many city students] hit second or third grade, they have achievement deficits accompanied by behavior problems," says Margaret J. Mclaughlin, associate director of the Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth at the University of Maryland College Park.

"They're going to end up in special ed," she says.

"There is a culture of thinking of special ed as the answer," adds Mclaughlin, who has observed Baltimore's special education programs for more than a decade. "The schools don't think, 'We need to examine curriculum. We need to examine the way our classes are organized.' "

Feeley, whose post was created two years ago by a federal judge, agrees that the school system often sees special education as the solution to a student's problems.

"I strongly believe what some of these [special ed] children need is a good reading teacher," she says.

A state breakdown of special education students by age supports these conclusions. Through age 10, Baltimore has about the same number of disabled students as Baltimore County. In ages 11 through 16, the city has as many as 600 more special education students for each age level as the county. Overall, Baltimore and Baltimore County have nearly the same number of students, but the city has roughly 5,500 more special education students than the county.

Once a city student is identified as disabled, chances are he or she will have little or no contact with nondisabled peers -- and the school system's regular academic curriculum.

More than half are taught in special education classrooms and schools, nearly double the statewide average. Another third are taken to "resource rooms" for a large part of the school day, according to state figures. Only one in eight spends most of his lTC or her time in a regular classroom -- despite legal requirements that disabled students be placed in the "least restrictive environment."

"The longer they're not in a general education classroom, the harder it is for them to receive the preparation they need for being a productive citizen," says Carol Ann Baglin, Maryland's assistant state superintendent for special education.

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