Changes made for special ed

City schools ease clinicians' administrative duties, fail to consult state


Psychologists, social workers and speech language pathologists in Baltimore's public schools lashed out in 2000 when they learned the school system was redefining their roles, requiring them to do far more paperwork and leaving less time to directly serve children.

Five years later, scores of psychologists have quit. A breakdown in providing counseling, speech therapy and other services to special-education students prompted a federal judge in August to give the state control over the city's special-education program.

Many of the 425 clinicians say the job restructuring was the key cause of the breakdown. And so they were elated with the news, shortly after the court ruling, that the school system is temporarily lifting their administrative duties.

But the move exacerbated tensions between the school system and state officials, who weren't consulted about the decision, and it left another group of workers overwhelmed with paperwork. State officials say the setup was not working, but insist the school system shouldn't have changed it without their permission.

"The court has given us the ultimate responsibility," said Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education. Baglin also said the system should have revisited the setup long ago.

"It's been four years of a dysfunctional model," she said. "In a good system, if something isn't working, you step back and say, `What do we need to do to fix it?'"

System officials say their action was prompted by a dire shortage of speech pathologists and a less severe need for more psychologists and social workers as schools prepared to open for the new year. Those who are on staff are now able to see more children without being bogged down by so much paperwork and so many meetings.

Officials say the system will now work with the state, the service providers and others to determine the best long-term setup. They say they are cautiously optimistic about a plan the state presented recently that is still in draft form but appears to incorporate their concerns and keeps the clinicians directly serving children.

By making the change, the system was able to make sure all children are served, said Maryanne Ralls, the school system's interim student support services officer. She said system officials would have consulted with the state had time permitted, and they hope to work together now.

The paperwork burden has been shifted to the system's approximately 140 "instructional associates," certified special-education teachers who already work outside the classroom monitoring whether children get the services they are supposed to receive. The system agreed to give each instructional associate a $2,000 stipend this year and for as long as they have the extra duties.

Brenda Fowlkes, an instructional associate at William H. Lemmel Middle School, said she is now responsible for almost all of the paperwork done last school year by two social workers and a psychologist.

"We need help," she said. "I could do a good job if I just had some assistance."

Harry Fogle, the lead state administrator overseeing special education in the city, said the state plan would allow principals to divide the paperwork as appropriate at their schools.

"We're not trying to dump on anybody," Fogle said. "We're trying to spread the wealth."

Under the scrapped arrangement - known as the "child study team" model - school psychologists, social workers and speech pathologists led the meetings to develop special-education students' individual education plans. The preparation and follow-up paperwork for such meetings can take hours, clinicians say.

The idea behind the old model was to improve instruction for special-education students by having the clinicians understand their disabilities in the broader context of their education, Ralls said.

During school hours, Ralls said, they would "provide therapy and give support to classroom teachers. ... They could do some of the paperwork after the youngsters were gone." In many cases, she said, the setup worked "very, very well. ... We had an awful lot of social workers and speech pathologists and psychologists who embraced this model."

Even Janice Johnson Hunter, one of the lawyers for special-education students who sued the school system and the state in 1984, said the setup was sometimes successful.

But many clinicians blame the setup for the breakdown in services that led to the unprecedented state intervention.

"Had the system listened to the actual workers, this whole situation could have been avoided," said Gail Levy, a psychologist at Highlandtown Middle School. "What we predicted came true."

System and state officials, as well as the children's lawyers, say that view is overly simplistic. Whatever the cause of the breakdown, the system is now on the hook for providing children with tens of thousands of hours of makeup services, which will cost millions of dollars.

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