Special ed gains

Our view: Baltimore's progress toward improving education for students with disabilities is long in coming

more work is needed to end federal oversight

March 10, 2009

The seemingly endless court supervision of the Baltimore City Public Schools' special education programs may finally be moving closer to a successful end.

Last week, a special master overseeing a decades-old federal lawsuit on behalf of students with disabilities reported that city elementary schools have made substantial progress toward meeting goals set out in a 2000 agreement to improve special ed programs.

The report suggested that the city's elementary schools were nearly in compliance with most of the benchmarks established to measure progress. And while the master found that city middle and high schools still have serious problems, the generally upbeat tone of the report was an encouraging sign for a system that has been struggling with this issue since 1984.

The report singled out city schools' chief Andres Alonso for praise, saying his reform efforts have been crucial to the improvements the city has seen. .

It also took note of the strong role played by the Maryland State Department of Education, which sent teams of experienced managers into the schools to monitor the process. Since 2005, education department workers have been involved in every department that affects special ed in the city, from transportation and food service to curriculum reform and classroom management.

The tangible improvements haven't yet been extended to the upper grades. Most Baltimore special ed students still fail to graduate from high school and are disproportionately concentrated in a handful of schools where they make up more than 25 percent of the enrollment.

Mr. Alonso has pledged to replicate the elementary school progress in the city's middle and high schools by the end of his five-year contract. That will be a tall order: The compliance standards set in the lawsuit are among the toughest in the nation, and there is no guarantee that even if they are met, they will automatically result in a better education for special ed students.

Still, the progress is encouraging for a city that has been wrestling with this problem for nearly a quarter-century. It has spent millions of dollars defending itself in court and staked a good part of its credibility on a pledge to gain release from court supervision. Now, as Mr. Alonso has acknowledged, it's important that the reforms be completed soon.

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