Special education program lauded, criticized

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The state's population of disabled children is expected to reach 120,000 by 2000, and Maryland educators are pointing to Anne Arundel County's special education program as a model to be copied by other school districts.

But there's dissent in the county about the program's track record and future.

Even as some parents weep with joy at the progress their children have made, critics say the program has fallen short of its potential.

Leola Forrester cries when she tells how the school system's Infants and Toddlers program helped her mildly retarded 11-year-old son.

"I was overwhelmed with caring for him," said Ms. Forrester, whose son benefited from the program's early intervention. "He was my miracle baby, a baby I wasn't supposed to have."

Douglas, whom she calls "Junior," began showing signs of mild retardation after becoming ill from accidentally eating a philodendron leaf, said Ms. Forrester, 43. He couldn't say "momma" or other words, and started hitting other children.

She credits Dr. Edward Feinberg, director of the infants program, and his staff with making her life with Douglas possible.

"They taught me how to love him, how to raise him right, and they taught us that he could learn," she said. "If I'd put him away, the way some doctors were suggesting, I wouldn't have known what he could do."

Twenty years ago children with disabilities often were institutionalized "or their parents were told to take them home and take care of them and love them," Dr. Feinberg said.

"There was very little in the terms of a systemwide approach, and many families were just lost. They felt abandoned," he said. "Now, we're able to provide more support."

By all accounts, the Infants and Toddlers program -- started five years before a 1980 state mandate to provide special services for disabled toddlers -- is the crown jewel of Anne Arundel County's special education program. Enrollment, about 100 students in 1975, has risen to 490 students.

"They really have done some very innovative work, especially in the area of working with younger children," said Richard J. Steinke, an assistant state superintendent.

The county had earned high marks for its practice of inclusion, teaching special ed students in neighborhood schools instead of separate schools. Now parents and teachers are concerned about the practice.

Battles over inclusion

Battles over the inclusion concept have raged in other school districts, such as Baltimore County.

Anne Arundel's efforts began in 1989. Services provided include physical and speech therapy and classroom aides or special education teachers to modify a student's lessons.

"We just started to build in options for kids so that if they wanted to, they could attend their home schools," said Irene Paonessa, who retired as director of the school system's special education program a few months ago. "We just thought we should bring services to the neighborhood schools instead of pulling kids out of schools."

The idea was so popular, and so well-executed, people moved to Anne Arundel County from as far away as Florida and California, she said. The idea also was a hit with teachers.

"Six years ago I was happy as a lark," said one veteran special education teacher, who asked that her name not be used. "We called it integration, and we began teaching special education students in their home schools. We were one of the first areas in the state to do it, and we did it gradually, so we didn't have the fuss you see in other school districts.

"The ideas look good on paper," she added.

In six years, her in-school time to plan lessons dropped from 3 1/2 hours a week to one hour a week because there's no one to watch her students, she said.

Frequently, her teaching assistant must accompany students to "regular" classrooms and work with them there, leaving her alone with at least eight other children. Sometimes, when she's ill, there is no substitute teacher. On those days a teaching assistant does her job.

To show how ill-prepared neighborhood schools were to receive the special students, she noted make shift wheelchair ramps, or ramps located far from handicapped students' classrooms. Special education centers have those and other amenities to make it easier to care for the students, the teacher said.

"Not every school has a room set aside for diapering or personal care where there's hot running water to bathe the children, a room where diapering can be done with privacy, and they should," she said. "I'm very much in favor of inclusion -- if it's done right."

Phyllis Bellotte recalls her decision to send her son Sam, who has Down syndrome, to Annapolis High School three years ago as part of the inclusion program. Until then, Sam attended Central Special School, one of the county's three special education centers.

"When I told people he was going to Annapolis High, I had people say to me, 'Are you out of your mind?' " Mrs. Bellotte said. "But in our house there was no question, you would finish high school. Sammy's the youngest of five. How could I tell Sammy he couldn't do that?"

Her conviction, and Sam's, paid off, she said.

Within a week, he no longer needed full-time assistance in the classroom.

"He was 15 and pretty much nonverbal. Now, he will not shut up," Mrs. Bellotte said with a note of joy in her voice. "I can see how much more independent he is."

Barbara Grace said putting her disabled daughter in a regular classroom "was the worst thing that ever happened to Molly."

Ms. Grace said she was a bragging spokeswoman for the county's special education system until they put her 14-year-old daughter in a regular fifth-grade class at Central Elementary School two years ago.

Molly has dyslexia, visual and perceptual problems, and sensory problems. She can't copy anything from a blackboard, her mother said. "She can't look up, and then bring it back down and put it on the paper."

Molly did her best work in a separate class within Central Elementary because there was one teacher to work with every three students, Ms. Grace said. Once Molly began spending half her day in a class with 30 students and one teacher, with only occasional help from a special education teacher, she began to change, her mother said.

"She was being teased, punched and pinched," Ms. Grace said. "She just kept saying to me 'It's too hard. I can't do it.' If anyone says the word inclusion again to me I think I'll scream."

Molly now attends the private Harbor School, and is doing better, her mother said.

Response to criticism

How Anne Arundel County responds to criticism and staffing challenges is important, not only because the state and other school districts are watching, but because the population of special education students is growing.

Statistics provided by the Maryland Department of Education show that 94,642 of the state's 771,377 students needed special education last year. In 1994, more than 9,000 of Anne Arundel County's approximately 70,500 students were enrolled in special education.

Educating those children is expensive.

In Anne Arundel County, for example, special education costs have almost quadrupled, going from $10.3 million in 1980 to $37.8 million in fiscal 1994. The costs will increase as more children enter the schools.

"Part of the reason the number of special education students is increasing has to do with the fact that medical science is able to keep youngsters alive longer -- youngsters we were not able to keep alive years ago," Dr. Paonessa said.

Also, doctors have been trained to detect the early signs of delays in development that could become more serious problems as a child grows up, added Dr. Feinberg.

That's what happened to Stephen Yorkgitis.

Stephen, 4, didn't begin smiling at 3 months like most babies.

He was "floppy" and couldn't sit up, even with help, until he was about 2. A seizure disorder that started around his first birthday complicated his condition.

In 1992 his parents, Chip and Carol Yorkgitis, moved from Pittsburgh to Maryland because Mr. Yorkgitis had a job in Washington.

"We were considering living in Montgomery County, but then we heard Anne Arundel had a very good program. This was a very calculated move," Mrs. Yorkgitis said.

The couple enrolled Stephen in the Infants and Toddlers program, and life changed.

The program's employees put straps on the regular and portable highchairs Stephen's parents bought. "They made a major difference in our life, in our ability to be a family," Mrs. Yorkgitis said. "We could go out together to eat in a restaurant like other people."

Stephen still can't talk, but in the last year he has learned how to hold a fork pre-loaded with food and lift it to his mouth, use a cup, crawl and use a walker. Although he hasn't mastered those tasks, he's made far more progress than his parents dared hope.

"I never thought he'd even sit up," Mrs. Yorkgitis said.

The couple has watched their son gain confidence to try new things, too. This summer, Stephen learned on his own to crawl up the stairs, taking his parents by surprise. Mrs. Yorkgitis found him halfway up the stairs.

"That's a big thing for us, because carrying him gets more difficult the older he gets," Mr. Yorkgitis said.

The key to Stephen's success has been a small classroom, his father said.

"There are a number of things he's accomplished because his teachers and aides have been able to work with him on a repeated day-to-day basis," Mr. Yorkgitis said. "The only way Stephen was able to learn to use the cup and fork was that someone was there every day to make sure he did it and worked on it."

The county's special education program, he said, gives frustrated parents confidence and "something to work for . . . a chance to have possibly more meaningful interaction with your child."

Next Sunday, The Sun looks at the financial pressures of funding the special education program, which accounts for 10 percent of the $417 million school budget.

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