Improvements urged in special education


Doris Moody said her grandson missed five months of classes last year because the Baltimore school system couldn't find a slot for the special education student who has emotional problems and dyslexia, a reading impairment.

And after her grandson, Carl Jones, 13, was accepted into Herring Run Middle School last year, he had no regular teacher for two months. Instead, a teacher's aide ran the class while the teacher was out sick, said Ms. Moody.

She is so frustrated with the school system that she's now looking for a private school for Carl.

Yesterday, Carl and his grandmother joined other families and Students First, an advocacy group, and urged reforms in special education.

At a news conference in front of the federal courthouse downtown, Students First released "When School Isn't Special," a 47-page critique of the special education program for about 17,000 students with learning disabilities and emotional problems.

Students First, funded with private grants, is a citywide group that seeks reforms in education.

While Baltimore spends more money per pupil for special education than any other Maryland district, it is not getting much for its money, Students First claims. Special education students have higher dropout, suspension and expulsion rates than other students, said Mindy Mintz, director of the advocacy group.

The group wants better training of special education teachers and the integration of special education students into regular classrooms.

Ms. Mintz said special education is a "dumping ground" for troubled students and slow learners.

She said the school system should spend more money "in [neighborhood] schools instead of spending money on buses to send students across town to schools that don't work."

Students First held the news conference in front of the federal courthouse to show its frustration with a 10-year-old lawsuit brought by special education students against the city that has yet to be resolved.

The group's recommendations include:

* Early intervention to prevent placement of students in special education classes who don't belong there and to make sure that students who do are given adequate attention.

* Integrating special education programs with regular classes by placing more students with disabilities in regular classrooms to end the "separate -- and distinctly unequal -- relationship between general and special education."

* Decentralization of management of special education by putting resources into each school rather than the central office.

* Provision of more training for special education staff.

The critique said that more than 4 percent of the students who are segregated in special education classes were suspended or expelled compared to 2 percent of students in regular classes.

At a meeting of the city school board last night, Ms. Mintz noted that school officials are due back in federal court next week on the long-standing lawsuit.

She issued a plea for the school system to adopt detailed changes recommended by court-appointed consultants hired to study the city's special education system.

"It doesn't help anyone to spend our time and our energies on a legal battle," Ms. Mintz told the board. "I hope that you will take this out of the hands of lawyers. . . . That's not where the futures of our kids belong."

School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey released a statement describing the Students First critique as "conscientious."

"We believe that 90 [percent to] 95 percent, if not all, students can learn at a high level. So we'll look favorably at the recommendations that are consistent with that belief," he said.

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