Baltimore City

For Baltimore schools, special education still a work in progress

At 4 years old, Imani Frederick couldn't recognize colors. Even a year later, he couldn't form complete sentences and struggled to count to 10. When he was 6, a neuropsychologist observed the fidgety, easily frustrated boy and diagnosed attention deficit hyperactive and expressive language disorder.

The doctor predicted that he would have difficulty academically and recommended classroom accommodations, such as a seat near the teacher, who would need to repeat directions for him. Imani's school should also establish a behavioral plan for him, the doctor suggested.

More than a decade later, the Baltimore City school district has come to a different conclusion about Imani Frederick. Even though he received special education services in elementary school before going to private school for a time, district officials said they couldn't confirm that he had a disability when he enrolled in public high school.

"Needing services doesn't mean that I'm retarded, but I just have a lot of energy and I don't get things as fast as everybody else," said the soft-spoken Frederick, 19 and a rising senior at the Friendship Academy of Science and Technology.

The Baltimore school system has long been criticized for failing special education students. For a quarter-century, the district has been under increased court and state oversight, the result of a landmark lawsuit alleging that it didn't comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that guarantees students with disabilities an appropriate free education.

As that extra layer of scrutiny comes to an end this year, some of the challenges that inspired the lawsuit remain, The Baltimore Sun found in interviews with dozens of parents, special education experts, and school officials as well as state audits obtained through public records requests.

Frederick's mother, Sharon Jackson, is among a vocal group of parents who contend that special education students aren't getting the help they need in the classroom, setting them back. Parents describe battling a bureaucracy that denies them services or doesn't know how to handle the students. Some say they are called several times a week to pick up their children when teachers give up.

Meanwhile, state officials have continued to flag issues in audits as recently as last year. Among the findings: Many special instructional and testing accommodations recommended in individualized education plans, such as one-on-one help from teachers, weren't provided. And the co-teaching model, which adds a special education teacher to the classroom, isn't used as widely as auditors recommend.

"We are not out of the woods at this time," said Blondelia Caldwell-Harrison, who chairs the district's parent advocacy group, the Special Education Citizen's Advisory Committee. "We must do better than what we're doing today in educating our children."

Statistically, the system has made noteworthy progress: Graduation rates among special education students are up and dropout rates are down, and more students with disabilities are in general education classrooms, rather than being illegally segregated.

Overall, district officials say, schools are more able and committed to serve the population, which accounts for more than 16 percent of the city's 83,000 students. The school system has planned a public forum Wednesday to discuss the progress it has made since the lawsuit.

"For 20 years, under the lawsuit, the district struggled to move the needle on many outcomes," city schools CEO Andrés Alonso, said in a statement. "Then, in the past five years, the needle moved. That happened because of focus, leadership and commitment, openness to criticism, and collaboration. Those things cannot be mandated or legislated, or they would have changed in the 20 years earlier."

But Frederick's experience recalls that of some disabled students when the lawsuit was filed 28 years ago. Back then, school officials neglected to conduct assessments of disabled students in the time frame required by federal law, delaying needed special education services. Moreover, special education advocates accused the school system of shutting out some children by not identifying them as special-needs students.

Still today, parents and advocates suspect that because it is costly to educate special-needs students, some are not being afforded the extra help.

When Frederick enrolled in the academy, district officials said they couldn't find files that would have outlined his individualized education plan — which is required for special education students.

Undeterred, Jackson pressed the district to find her son's files, which were eventually were traced to a warehouse. She also took her son to Kennedy Krieger Institute for an independent evaluation, which not only found he suffers from ADHD but also adolescent depression. Doctors there recommended extensive educational assistance and vocational training.

Nonetheless, the school system has maintained that Frederick doesn't qualify for special education services.

'Grateful' for lawsuit

Problems with city schools' handling of special education students came to light when the Maryland Disability Law Center sued the mayor and city in 1984, on behalf of Vaughn Garris — identified in court records as Vaughn G. — and more than 30 other students.

The West Baltimore teen, who had been denied access to special education services and a vocational education — and would eventually be convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison — became the face of a crusade against a system that critics said was failing special needs students.

"We were so grateful for the lawsuit because for decades, the school system wouldn't acknowledge, wouldn't address, and wouldn't make the changes needed for our children," recalled Sandra Spears, director of the CityWide Special Education Advocacy Project Inc., a group of special education advocates, educators and parents.

"Generations of students went to that school system and graduated with a certificate of attendance and are now in the community not able to contribute, to reach their potential," Spears said.

The federal lawsuit addressed a range of systematic failures.

Basic record-keeping and tracking systems were sloppy or nonexistent. Students were not receiving timely assessments to develop an individualized education plan, and those who had one weren't receiving services. Students with disabilities had little chance of ever being educated in the same classrooms as their general-education peers. And they were being disciplined at a disproportionate rate, falling further behind their peers.

By 2010, three years after former special educator Alonso arrived, the system had quickly amassed a portfolio of accomplishments that it submitted to the courts showing it had made significant advancements in educating students with disabilities. In mandated progress reports, the district promoted "extraordinary progress."

Over five school years through 2011, the system's graduation rate for students with disabilities increased 31 percent, and the dropout rate among the population dropped by nearly 51 percent. Suspensions among students with disabilities declined 25 percent in that same period, and the number of students with disabilities who improved in reading and math increased by 53 percent.

Armed with these improvements, the plaintiffs and the school district reached a settlement agreement in 2010 under which court supervision would end and the state would begin monitoring the district several times a year. Every other district in Maryland is audited once annually.

In a statement, the Disability Law Center said the school system "has made significant progress since the Vaughn G. lawsuit was filed in 1984 and that many of the issues that the system faced then have been resolved."

But the attorneys also acknowledged that problems persist. "More difficult issues, such as ensuring that students with disabilities obtain meaningful supports and services so they can access their education effectively, and ensuring that appropriate behavioral supports are in place as an alternative to disciplinary removal, remain challenging."

Moreover, last year special education students experienced setbacks in math and reading proficiency on the Maryland School Assessments, and the number of special-needs students suspended last school year rose by 500 to 3,499, the first uptick in five years.

"The challenge with students with disabilities is that there's always going to be an educational impact," said Kimberly Lewis, who led the city system's special education office until last year. "But we've made incremental progress and will continue to. It takes a constant vigilance."

Carol Ann Heath, who retired last year as the assistant state superintendent for special education and oversaw monitoring the city for 12 years, said she worries about further backsliding over the long term.

"They have the systems in place now, and have great leadership that asks the right questions," Heath said. "But in the city, things are a lot more fragile."

Classroom problems persist

One of the system's triumphs has been to reverse a long-standing practice of segregating special education students. In the past five years, the number of special-needs students being educated in general education classrooms increased 40 percent. Education experts say this exposes students to more rigorous curriculum and instruction, and to social development among a broader spectrum of peers.

But without the proper classroom aids, some parents of special needs students say they have watched their children regress rather than blossom among the general student population.

Wanda Pulliam, whose daughter, Kayla White, has been diagnosed with high-functioning Down syndrome, has been to five schools in the past three years since pre-kindergarten, in search of a program that could deliver the proper services. Kayla has been placed in a range of classrooms, from a special education class that contained three grade levels to general education classes above her grade level.

In the past year, Pulliam has balanced her schedule working the night shift at a local corrections facility with spending time in her daughter's classroom after she learned that Kayla was doodling while other students learned. One time she said she found her daughter stuck behind a soda machine in the teachers' lounge at a school, after she had disappeared for hours.

District officials declined to discuss individual cases, citing privacy laws.

"No one gives you a handbook for how to do this, and it's just so hard to watch her regress," Pulliam said in a recent interview. "I work in a jail and nothing has been this hard, or gotten to me this way. It's been the worst experience of my life — advocating for my child to just get an education."

This school year, Pulliam thought her daughter, a rising second-grader, had a promising start at James Mosher Elementary — until it took four months for the school to provide the one-on-one instructional help she needs.

"It's just not fair that it took this long," Pulliam said. "Of course, I'm happy [Kayla received help], but I'm not satisfied. And who knows what next year will bring."

A state audit last year bore out Pulliam's experience.

State officials found that special education students often didn't get services and accommodations they needed to keep up with their peers in regular classrooms.

In observations of 74 students and 194 classroom lessons, auditors found students didn't get one-fourth of the accommodations listed in their individualized education plans to help them during testing and classwork, such as adults reading test questions aloud and students receiving more time to complete tasks.

And when monitoring whether students received other services, such as frequent cuing to ensure they stayed on task or one-on-one help, auditors found students didn't receive half of the aids outlined in their education plans.

In addition, the auditors assessed whether teachers were tailoring lessons to ensure special needs students met academic goals and found they complied only 55 percent of the time last year, up from 43 percent in 2009. State officials warned that the compliance rates had not improved at a pace expected over three years.

"This is not a satisfactory rate of improvement," auditors concluded in the report. "Special education students cannot be successful in the classroom setting if the instructional program does not include goals, objectives, services."

State officials also urged in audits that the co-teaching model, which pairs a special education teacher with the regular classroom teacher, be used more often. The model is expensive; currently about 35 percent of schools in the city use it.

Those who have overseen monitoring the city school system say that while it's laudable to integrate special education students into regular classrooms, the district still needs to learn how to do it well.

"The city has moved very quickly in putting a lot of kids in the least restrictive environment, and for every kid, it's not the best thing," said Heath, the retired assistant state superintendent for special education. "Their record has improved tremendously. But it's not like they've figured out how to really teach kids with disabilities."

City school officials said that evaluations of how special education students are faring in general education classrooms have always been the most controversial, because they can be subjective. They said it isn't fair to draw broad judgments from the audit.

"Some of it is subject to the opinion of the evaluator," said Kimberly Hoffmann, the recently appointed head of the system's special education office. "Are we getting the levels that we need? No. But it's also just a snapshot, and we know it's a focus of the work that we need to continue focusing on."

The school system pointed to key initiatives — being pushed this year after having been stalled by budget issues — that will help the system improve its ability to educate students with disabilities. One-Year-Plus, a program conceived years ago, sets achievement goals for literacy at each grade level.

Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman, a former school board member who had advocated for the program for years, said he is pleased to see it start to become a reality.

He said reading is pivotal to helping students achieve their full potential, and that the city's test scores for students with disabilities are "severely inflated" by accommodations, such as reading aloud test questions.

"It's not a valid test of their independent ability," Hettleman said. "When they get in the real world, no one is going to read to them. That is the real gap between special education and general education populations."

Special education advocates emphasize that programs, when properly implemented, can make a difference. At Medfield Heights Elementary, for instance, the high-performing school where students with disabilities are 14 percent of the population, every grade level has adopted the co-teaching model.

"Co-teaching requires teachers to take full responsibility for those kids, and in other schools those kids are absolutely a second thought," said Sara Sale, who has worked as a special education teacher in the city for more than 30 years and is the school psychologist at Medfield.

"It's almost miraculous what can happen, because it's extra everything with two heads in a room."

On a recent morning, as a third-grade class moved through three lessons, principal Anthony Japzon shook his head "no" when asked to identify the special education teacher and students. "Nope," he said with a chuckle. "That's the point."

Parents called to pick up kids

Another problem flagged by auditors has been the district's handling of disciplinary actions. For years, special education students were suspended at higher rates and for longer periods than other students.

State auditors found last year that the system still struggled with the issue. They noted that 12 percent of the 101 students sampled were removed from school without proper documentation, and that 28 percent of those removed for more than 10 days didn't get the special education services they missed upon their return, such as appointments with speech therapists.

School officials said they have worked to correct those problems.

But at a recent meeting of the district's parent advocacy group, parents of special-needs students confronted school officials about being called several times a week to pick up their children when the schools couldn't handle them. They said the removals didn't qualify as a suspension, just a way to get disruptive students out of the classroom.

"They're calling me every day to come pick him up for the same reason he went to the program," said Geneva Cooper-Jackson, the mother of four special-needs students, whose son attended the Pride Program — for students with behavioral challenges — at Frederick Douglass High School.

"When I was picking him up every day, no telling what he was missing," Cooper-Jackson said. "Sometimes they sent packets home; sometimes when we went to pick them up, there were none."

Outside the classroom, state officials noted problems getting special-needs students to and from school. They found some students were not picked up on time, or at all, and that parents were not informed of changes to transportation services. For decades the system has grappled with transportation — it relies heavily on contracted bus and taxi services — and has continued to struggle to provide curb-to-curb service for nearly 3,000 special education students.

"We have a lot of different vendors who have to be in a lot of different places," said Keith Scroggins, the system's chief operating officer. "So this is always very multifaceted and has to be addressed simultaneously, and over time."

City school officials emphasize that the district has made progress, and that they are trying not to get mired in compliance paperwork. And Alonso's focus on changing the system's relationship with parents and advocates from adversarial to a partnership gives the advocacy community hope.

"The greatest challenge in this area is not in the area of mandated compliance," Alonso said. "The greatest challenge is in teaching and learning, and creating settings where the kids learn to standards.

"My fear is that if we remain stuck on the compliance issues that have been the focus of the lawsuit, the focus will continue to be on the failings toward the few, and obscure the far greater problem of the failings toward the many."

Some officials even questioned the need to expend so much effort and money — more than $2.6 million in the past five years — to comply with the terms of the lawsuit.

"It's been a shameful waste of time and money that has nothing to do with the quality of instruction," Hettleman, the former school board member, said of the increased oversight mandated by the courts. "It has taken millions of dollars away from educating children, and became an excuse for the school system's failure to do so that is still going on today."

The plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit say that it is too soon to judge whether the case has transformed the system's approach to educating students with disabilities.

"The calls that come into our office still reflect the amount of work that remains to be done," the Disability Law Center said in a statement.

"It is our hope that we will forge a new, non-litigious working relationship so that we can continue to address these challenges and make sure the progress [Baltimore City Public Schools] has made so far is real for all students in the school system."

'I'm running out of time'

The more Sharon Jackson watched her son Frederick at home, in school and on the playground, the deeper the pit in her stomach grew. "A mother knows," Jackson said. "Something that was very simple, that came fast to other kids his age, didn't come fast to him."

A student-athlete, he is confident and well-liked. He has a close circle of friends who encourage him to shrug off teasing about being older than his classmates and holding up the class because he needs extra help. He is looking forward to his senior year.

"Nobody wants to be 'that kid,' but I just want a chance like everybody else," he said. "And I'm running out of time."

Frederick said he has been promoted from grade to grade but feels he's not progressing in his learning. "I want to go to college, but I know I wouldn't make it in that environment," he said. "But I'll try my best just like I'm doing now. I just hope it's enough."

Aside from describing him as a polite and engaging young man, the two psychological assessments by the city school system and Kennedy Krieger couldn't be more different.

In its assessment of Frederick, conducted in February 2011, the district determined that his disability could not be confirmed in their observations, and that only one teacher noted difficulties in class. "Although Imani reportedly carries a diagnosis of ADHD," the report said, "the condition cannot be confirmed through the results of this evaluation."

Kennedy Krieger came to the opposite conclusion. "Imani's profile remains consistent with ADHD," the examiner wrote. "This level of [abilities] does not allow Imani to succeed in general education environment without accommodations."

Jackson said the decades of increased oversight ordered by the courts should have led to more improvements.

"I just can't believe that with this lawsuit, they still put me through this," she said. "I'm going to continue fighting for my child, because that's my responsibility. But what is theirs?"

Lawsuit timeline

1984: The Maryland Disability Law Center files Vaughn G. v. the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore lawsuit on behalf of special education students, a year after an administrative complaint said the school system had put hundreds of students on waiting lists to receive assessments.

1988: The Baltimore school system enters the first settlement agreement under a consent decree, and the case grows to include 33 students. The system would violate virtually all stipulations under the consent decree for the next six years.

1994: The school system is found in contempt of court for failing to follow the direction of an appointed Management Oversight Team.

1995: Facing receivership, the system hires Sister Kathleen Feeley to oversee its compliance; violations continue.

1996: Under pressure to settle three lawsuits (including Vaughn G.) that allege public school students are not well enough funded or educated, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke gives up some control of the schools and a city-state partnership is formed; a new court-appointed special master is hired to monitor the system.

1997: In lieu of an education, the school system gives away $2 million in merchandise, trips, gift certificates and tuition. Special education students are compensated with goods such as computers, VCRs, fax machines and other electronics.

2002: Judge Marvin Garbis threatens to hold schools chief Carmen Russo in contempt and send her to jail for failing to provide services to special education students.

2004: In a chilly hearing before the judge, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick makes headlines by suggesting that the school system, in the throes of a budget deficit, might be better run by a trustee, a suggestion that was not heeded.

2005: The state is allowed to hire top school staff with expertise in specific areas, including transportation, human resources, special education and information technology, to deliver more than 90,000 hours of special education services.

2007: Schools CEO Andrés Alonso begins his tenure as superintendent and is given the task of bringing the system out of Vaughn G. Reports begin to document progress.

2010: Parties to the lawsuit sign an agreement to end the 26-year federal oversight of special education services. Under the agreement, the city must continue to provide special needs students with services, give them support they need to obtain a regular education, and work to reduce the numbers that are suspended each year. The state continues to actively monitor the school system's progress until the lawsuit ends.

2012: The Vaughn G. settlement agreement will end the lawsuit by Sept. 15.

Source: Maryland Disability Law Center