Citizens panel faults special education

Quality is said to vary from school to school

`A lack of consistency'

Training and staffing identified as concerns

Howard County

March 17, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The quality of special education throughout Howard County varies drastically by school, despite efforts to unify offerings, members of an advisory committee told the Board of Education last night during a meeting.

"Some schools do a fabulous job, some don't," said Anne Long, chairwoman of the Special Education Citizens Advisory Committee. "We want school-based administrators to be guided more by the Department of Special Education."

The 2002 reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires all students, including those in special education, to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Howard has pledged to make considerable headway - promising in November that 70 percent of all student groups will meet the goal by 2007.

But inconsistencies in educator training, resource availability and disability-identification skills mean many of Howard's 5,000 special education students may never make it. State assessment tests show them lagging far behind their general-education counterparts, and catching up is almost impossible without help.

"A lack of consistency among schools within the system is a concern among parents," said Mark Gray, who chairs a committee subgroup focused on including disabled children in general education classes. "A change in schools can mean a dramatic change in [special education] placement and general ideas about how to educate kids."

In January, the advisory committee released its annual report assessing the county's special education program. Committee members discussed the report for the first time last night.

The report offers eight recommendations, seven of which are repeats from a year ago - including the suggestion to give the Special Education Department more oversight authority over individual schools.

"Progress has been made," Long said before the meeting. "But I'll be honest with you, it's never enough."

Among the issues raised in the report is Howard's poor rate of inclusion of disabled children in general education classrooms, a problem highlighted last year when data showed the county ranked near the bottom of Maryland districts in inclusion efforts. The committee suggests adopting specific policies and practices to increase the inclusion numbers, which the school system has been working toward.

Other recommendations include partnering with parents and community groups to ensure that educators understand the varied instructional strategies required by different disabilities; increasing staff development offerings; and improving methods used to identify learning disabilities early so students can get the support they need to succeed.

Children shouldn't have to fail at something in order to have their disabilities diagnosed, said Trish Budd, another committee member. Too often children reach high school age before the school system recognizes special needs.

"Learning disabilities don't just appear overnight, so there's something wrong," Budd said.

Adequate staffing was another concern. The committee stressed a need to provide special educators based on need, rather than budgetary limitations.

Because of county budget constraints, the school system may soon have to cut as much as $12 million from its operating budget request, said Courtney Watson, school board chairman. She asked the advisory committee to lobby for its interests and work with the board to make sure cuts aren't too deep.

"We're asking for your help," Watson said.

The committee's report also asked for improved vocational education opportunities within the county, which offers highly skilled training that requires high academic achievement, or low-level job skills preparation with little challenge. There's little in between.

Making Howard schools free of physical barriers should be a priority, committee members said. Many facilities are still unwelcoming to those in wheelchairs.

Interim superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said the system has dedicated $100,000 to structurally improving facilities in the coming year, but he acknowledged that it is just a "first step" that still lacks an implementation plan.

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