Special classes found lacking

Study focuses on offerings for disabled in Balto. Co.

Inferior programs for poor kids

Officials sought report to correct deficiencies

May 26, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County school system is unnecessarily segregating children with disabilities, providing inferior special education programs at schools in poor neighborhoods and disproportionately placing boys in special education classes, according to a study presented to the school board last night.

The board had commissioned the study in August, agreeing to pay a consultant $100,000 to determine what is wrong with the district's special education program and how to fix it.

And the consultant, Lou Barber, who has served as California's top special education official and has evaluated about 150 school districts nationwide, found many problems. At one school, special education classes were in the basement. The walls had holes that had not been repaired, and a broken window was then covered in plywood, according to his report.

Nevertheless, Barber had much praise for Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and his staff for their willingness to look critically at their schools. School system spokesman Charles A. Herndon said the district welcomed the report, calling special education "a concern and a priority." He said it was too soon to respond to specific findings.

According to Barber's 87-page report:

Much work is needed to place as many disabled children as possible at their neighborhood schools, where they can interact with peers who are not disabled and can have more opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities.

Baltimore County ranks in the bottom quarter of Maryland school districts for placing children with disabilities in the "least restrictive" setting, as required by federal law. Special education students are concentrated at about 30 of the district's 163 schools.

Schools in poor neighborhoods appeared to have inferior special education programs. "There appears to be a wide disparity in how special education support has been distributed throughout the school system," the report says, noting differences in teacher qualifications, materials and supplies, and the number of aides and other support workers.

"Although the school environment at many schools was clean, neat and inviting, several schools within the system exhibited an environment that was not welcoming," it continues. "The difference in maintenance of schools appeared to be related to the socio-economic status of the community.

"While many schools exhibited outstanding instructional personnel doing very meaningful, creative instruction, other schools had unqualified staff providing instruction that did not appear to engage students. ... There appeared to be a relationship between less qualified staff and the socio-economic status of the community."

Boys are disproportionately placed in special education programs, especially in middle schools and high schools. Black boys make up 25 percent of special education enrollment, but 19 percent of total enrollment. White boys constitute 41 percent of special education enrollment, compared with 29 percent of total enrollment.

It is not always cost-effective to contract out for special education services, as the system often does, particularly to place the most severely disabled children in private schools.

The district's office of special education needs to be reorganized. The report calls the special education administrative structure "somewhat dysfunctional."

Baltimore County, like school districts nationwide, could eventually face sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act if the performance of its special education students does not improve. With few exceptions, the Baltimore County schools that did not meet their goals on last year's state standardized tests were those serving special education students from outside their attendance areas.

Twenty-seven schools did not meet their targets because of low scores among special education students. For another 32 schools, low special education scores was one of the reasons targets weren't met.

Many of Baltimore County's challenges stem from its rapidly changing demographics and an influx of children living in foster care, said Barber, who was aided in conducting the study by two financial analysts and a national expert in "least restrictive environment" regulations. He noted the national shortage of qualified special education staff and said special education often becomes unwieldy in districts as large as Baltimore County's, which has 108,000 students, 14,000 of whom receive special education services.

Barber said district officials have excellent communication with parents, and a strong group of social workers, nurses and other support staff.

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