Millions spent, but these kids still can't read Schools: Good intentions, lavish spending and never-ending litigation haven't produced results for city special-ed students.

September 21, 1998|By Debbie M. Price, Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson | Debbie M. Price, Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Every week, Carolyn Walker sees the product of one of the nation's most expensive special education programs. A 17-year-old struggles with first-grade work. A 14-year-old boy can't recite the months of the year. A 10th-grader doesn't know the alphabet.

"I don't know how they keep going to school when they're so deficient," says Walker, who runs the Partnership for Learning, a nonprofit tutoring program for teens accused of their first crime. "I don't know what the school is thinking in terms of passing them and moving them on."

As far behind in school as these children are, they're not unusual.

They are, however, luckier than many of their special education peers in one regard.

The judge who sent these children to the Partnership for Learning has given them a choice: learn to read or pay the price.

Most Baltimore special education students don't get that second chance.

Ten years after city officials promised to improve special education, the rolls of the program are filled with children who cannot read, even though the city is spending more per special education student than any other district in Maryland.

The high cost - an average of $9,700 per child - has exacted a price on the entire school system: Baltimore spends less per pupil for regular education than any other district in the state.

Meanwhile, the people responsible for fixing special education - school officials, lawyers and a federal judge - remain locked in a bitter, 14-year-old court battle. The legal wrangling has generated millions of dollars in legal fees, file cabinets full of requirements and periodic threats of contempt for the school district. But it has done very little to improve student performance.

"Winning or losing the lawsuit shouldn't be anybody's primary objective," says U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who declines to comment on the specifics of the case. "The real objective should be getting the kids of this city a decent education."

'Educational malpractice'

Consider Antoine, a 10th-grade special education student who arrived at the Partnership for Learning unable to recite the alphabet.

After about a year of once-a-week tutoring sessions with Assistant State's Attorney Phil Pickus, Antoine could read three-syllable words and, Pickus said, was beginning to tackle sports magazines. Though Antoine's attendance was irregular, and he ultimately left before finishing the program, his experience with a part-time volunteer tutor proved that he could learn.

"It's educational malpractice," Pickus says of the failure of the schools to teach Antoine.

Pickus is not alone in his assessment.

Everyone from state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick to former schools Chief Executive Officer Robert Schiller acknowledges that the city's special education program is badly broken, though the executives say they have seen improvement in recent months. Schiller says a new team is managing the bureaucracy more efficiently, but he recognizes that overall classroom instruction is still abysmal.

"I'd like to be kind," says Schiller, "but clearly from the academic side, it's not a passing grade."

The problems are myriad.

Court files and the school system's internal audits tell of thousands of special education children whose hearings were late, whose instruction plans weren't followed, who, in short, fell through the cracks.

Costs are high, but little money has been spent on reading curricula and teacher training.

Too many students have been placed in special education who don't belong there. These children, experts note, do not have serious emotional, physical or mental handicaps. They are youngsters capable of learning who simply weren't taught.

More than any other measure, these children who could learn but do not evidence the fundamental failure of special education.

No one can say how many teen-agers reach high school unable to read. There are no hard numbers to define the progress of special education students because the school system does not track their test scores after fifth grade. This omission underscores the low priority placed on student performance.

What is known is that with each passing year of elementary school, special education students fall farther behind other students on national tests.

In the third grade, special education students score almost as well as other city pupils on national reading tests - though both groups score at least a year behind the norm. Third grade is also the year that most special education students enter the program.

By fifth grade, special education students test 2 1/2 years below grade level. This leaves them more than a year behind their regular education peers in Baltimore, who themselves are a year and a half behind the national norm.

Special education students take the state test of basic skills required to get a high school diploma - a simple exam that requires fifth-grade-level ability in reading and math - but Baltimore school officials don't know how many of them pass it.

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