HELPING HAND FOR DISABLED A HIGH PRIORITY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Until fifth grade, 13-year-old Kevin Wells spent his day isolated inthe orthopedic wing of Oakwood Elementary in his wheelchair. Opportunities for him to mix with other students were limited to social studies and science classes.

No more. Kevin, now in the eighth grade, is being mainstreamed. He is taking courses -- except for a select few, such as gym and art -- along with the rest of his classmates.

"I like being with the other kids," he says.

Even though Werdnig-Hoffman's disease, a neuro-muscular condition associated with spinal muscular atrophy, limits Kevin to the use of only two fingers and a weak muscle in the back of his neck, he has managed to more than keep up with his classmates. He is a regular on Corkran Middle School'shonor roll and placed third at February's countywide spelling bee.

"I'm planning to go to college to do something with computers," Kevin says earnestly. "I think about teaching occasionally."

Expansion of their world through mainstreaming is the goal county school officials are pursuing for their special education students. Not only does this help handicapped students reach their full potential, educators say, but it helps other students learn to accept those different from themselves.

Not everyone agrees. Some educators -- and parents -- fear school systems support mainstreaming only as an easy way of reducing the need for special schools and programs for the handicapped, thus lessening special education's effect on tight school budgets. They worry that such students need more one-on-one attention.

But mainstreaming remains the preferred option in Anne Arundel, where 9,100 of the county's 65,000 students are enrolled in special education classes. Their afflictions run the gamut from emotional problems and mild learning disabilities to severe mental retardation and medicallyfragile conditions.

"It's important that we get students and staff talking," said Paulette Henson, special education integration specialist. "It's so easy to see what differences there are, but we want them and others to begin focusing on how they are the same.

"Havinga disability is just another way to be challenged."

County is leader

Both Maryland and Anne Arundel County have been lauded as leaders in special education. The state is one of only six in the nation that have a formal early-intervention program, called the Parent Infant Program, geared to recognize potential problems in babies.

AnneArundel is designated by military officials as one of two preferred locations for families of students with disabilities. The other is Fort Lewis, Wash.

But caring for handicapped students from birth to age 21 carries a hefty price tag -- one that goes beyond specially trained teachers and customized instructional materials.

In Kevin's case, for example, Delia Stumpf, an aide assigned to him by the school system, monitors his health, takes his notes in class and serves asa study partner. The county employs 40 such aides, at a total cost of $580,000, for physically-disabled students. In addition, 186 instructional assistants, with a combined salary of $2.6 million, are assigned to the special education department.

"Aside from health insurance and fixed charges (such as worker's compensation, Social Securitytaxes, etc.), no part of the budget has grown faster than special education," says School Superintendent Larry L. Lorton, whose school system faced an $8 million budget deficit this year.

In the face of those financial woes, special education has not escaped unscathed. Already, to help offset a hiring freeze and reduction in the use of substitutes, 13 resource teachers have been ordered back to the classroom. Normally, those teachers would work with parents and staff in designing and fine-tuning the special education curriculum.

But even in hard times, school officials hesitate to make cuts in special education. Besides the public relations nightmare such cuts can cause, strict federal and state laws mandate both specialized equipment and lowstudent-teacher ratios.

"Special education is a major cost factorin this school system," school Budget Officer Jack White says. "I'm not taking a position whether that is good or bad. It's a fact of life we have to deal with."

Special education accounts for 8.9 percent of the school system's $330.1 million 1990-1991 budget. Of the total $29.6 million for special education, $19.7 million comes from county government, $8.1 million from state government, and $1.8 million from the federal government.

County Executive Robert R. Neall's proposed spending plan for 1991-1992 calls for an increase of 14.3 percent in the special education budget, to $33.8 million.

Anne Arundel's competitive instructional salaries -- it ranks fifth in the state, behind Montgomery, Baltimore, Prince George's and Howard counties -- have helped attract teachers. But because of strict state certification requirements, the pool of available teachers grows smaller every year. And competition grows tougher.

"Teaching special education isa tough position," says Tom Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. "Fewer people are going into it because of the tremendous pressure, (plus) paperwork from the feds and the state. The education budget is shrinking, and class sizes will grow. It will become more difficult to do their jobs as the number of people in the room increases."

White says he fears some programs may bein jeopardy unless the County Council approves all 33 special education positions requested this year by the school board. In his proposed budget, Neall cut that request to 10.

The school system's enrollment projections call for 1,500 additional students in September, with 200 in special education.

"There are prescribed staffing ratios for all of the various identified handicapping conditions kids have,"White says. "Almost invariably, staff ratios are going to be quite low -- 5:1, 8:1 or 12:1. In some cases, they require teaching assistants. Special transportation services may have to be provided.

"The bottom line," White says, "is that for kids in our school system, be they emotionally disturbed or learning disabled or orthopedically handicapped, these children are quite expensive (to teach) in relation to other kids."

But county Budget Analyst Charlie Richardson said the county executive's proposed budget will address the demands.

"When we looked at the current staffing, (student) population, legal restrictions for current programs, we found that our current staffing is well in excess of what is legally required," said Richardson, who monitors the school budget. "We added special education staff at a greater rate than the actual increase in special education population.

"Clearly, the number enrolled in special education in the future isa guess. But the 10 positions were allocated to make sure we're not going to run into problems."

PROGRAMS FEELING BUDGET PINCH

For onesmall segment of the special education population, the chances of putting the brake to soaring costs is especially slim. Some students have afflictions so severe that they must be "residential placements" -- enrolled in institutions scattered from Maine to Georgia.

These students, less than 2 percent of the special education population, may be violent. They may be severely emotionally disturbed and require an extraordinarily rigid and structured program.

Whatever the case, serving them is expensive. And federal law requires school systems to pay for educating every student living within its jurisdiction.

Tuition costs for residential placements range from $24,000 to $150,000 per student.

The costs far outstrip day programs, where tuitions average about $12,000. Day programs include private school, hospital and institutional settings where the county pays only for the educational portion. Students either return home after school or their housing is paid by someone else.

Students requiring residential placement have disabilities "so severe that we are not able to program for them," says Irene Paonessa, county director of special education. "The first thing we look at is whether there's a program in the state.If none are available, we try to find a program as close as possible."

Eighty-four county students are in residential placement. Only five made enough progress this year to be considered for return to the county to finish their education.

Last year, state Department ofEducation figures show, 70 students required residential placement in school and institutional settings, at a cost of $2.8 million. By contrast, the county had 13 students in day programs, at a cost of $253,441.

Baltimore City had 100 students in residential placements last year, at a cost of $3.6 million. Among suburban counties, Prince George's led the way with 100 students at $4.1 million, followed by Montgomery (67 students, $3.4 million), Baltimore (52 students, $2.2 million), Howard (22 students, $1.1 million), Harford (20 students, $729,000) and Carroll (12 students, $565,000).

With the economy worsening, school officials believe the state will shift more of the burden for special education to local government.

During this year's General Assembly session, school officials closely monitored House BillNo. 995, introduced by Delegate Tyras S. "Bunk" Athey, D-Jessup. Thebill, which died in committee, would have required local school systems to provide education within their jurisdictions for students now sent to private facilities for day programs.

School officials complained that such legislation would set an expensive precedent.

"The state wants to get out of the business of providing money for thosestudents," says board member Dorothy Chaney, the board's legislativeliaison.

Chaney fears the measure would be extended to more costly residential placements.

"My guess is that since (the bill) didn't pass this time, it will be resurrected," Superintendent Lorton says. Lorton calls the bill an indicator of no-confidence in school systems' ability to decide who belongs in day programs.

Needs targeted early

School officials are hoping to lower the number of students needing special education by meeting their needs early. Since 1979, doctors have been referring patients to the county's Parent Infant Program, which provides support and training to help parents improve their baby's abilities.

The PIP staff includes 13 teachers and six speech therapists, plus physical and occupational therapists from the county Health Department. They have worked with almost 300 blind, deafor multihandicapped infants this year.

"We try to anticipate, assist, listen and create new avenues," PIP Director Ed Feinberg says.

The successful program is one of the most formalized of its kind inthe nation and fields frequent inquiries from other school systems. But Feinberg says that money is a concern.

PIP's current budget is$140,000. It is not expected to increase during the coming budget year. The demand, however, for PIP's services grows as improving medical technology keeps seriously ill babies alive. Over the past two years, the influx of so-called "crack babies," children of mothers addicted to crack cocaine, has made the problem even worse.

For Feinberg, the struggle is to do the best he can with whatever aid the programreceives.

"We have to make sure it's cost-effective," Feinberg says. "We've never asked for radical numbers in staff. But if the recession gets worse, we may be asked to do more with less."

Services fought for

For many, like longtime parent advocate Violet Cosgrove,formal special education services were slow in coming. And they haveno desire to give back what they fought so hard to get.

"I alwaysfelt that children are more important than dollars and cents," says Cosgrove, whose 25-year-old learning-disabled son was a special education student in the county.

"I strongly believe that if we help them now, we won't be paying for them down the line," says Cosgrove, who heads the 125-member Anne Arundel County Association for Children With Learning Disabilities. Her son, she points out, has a job and is making a living.

Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, became law in 1975. For school systems across the country, it changed special education from being a private family matter to a public challenge.

But in Anne Arundel County, the groundwork had been laid. Since 1952, a handful of handicapped students had been taught by the public school system. By 1962, more than 1,000 students were enrolled in special education classes. Oakwood Elementary had its own wing for the orthopedically handicapped and hearing impaired.

Ruth P. Eason was among the early champions for formal specialeducation programs. During the 1960-1961 school year, she and GeorgeE. Klinkhamer were named the county's first supervisors for special education.

During that first year, 22 students received special vocational skills training.

The school system took on its greatest challenge in 1975. It established the Phoenix Center concept, which provides education services to seriously emotionally-disturbed studentsas a last step before residential placement. Such students are now taught at Phoenix centers in Annapolis, Glendale and Crownsville.

But as mainstreaming becomes more in vogue, greater emphasis is placedon allowing students at the centers to associate with their peers. Some center students now attend neighboring schools half of each day.

But the struggle -- with the physical as well as the monetary problems -- continues.

With his hands clasped tightly, Ken Lawson, theschool system's assistant superintendent for student support services, glances out the large picture window in his office.

"The future for special education is to provide opportunities and needed educational services so that every youngster can be successful in school alongside regular education students," Lawson said.

"The biggest surprise was how complicated and legally-connected all of the issues are. There are custody and health issues. It's very complicated.

"Butit's easy to get caught up rin all the legal issues and forget that it's all for the good of the child."

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