Changes eyed for special education; Long-range proposals from task force would cost $5 million


Howard County school officials are proposing an ambitious, long-range plan for improving special education programs, including a request for nearly $5 million in new funds.

The plan -- released yesterday and developed over several months by a 21-member task force of teachers, parents, administrators and other staff members -- calls for:

More intervention and options for children who are struggling academically but might not need to be referred to special education. The county has 4,200 students in special education programs.

Better access to the regular curriculum for students with disabilities who are seeking diplomas. Students who are earning certificates should have a program that teaches them functional life skills.

Improving relationships between school staff members and parents with children in special education programs.

More teachers, aides, staff development and other resources for schools.

Expansion of some programs for children with special needs.

Collaboration between general and special education teachers.

The special education plan will be presented at tomorrow's school board meeting. If adopted, it would result in the first major changes in special education in seven years and require $4.7 million in new spending from 2000 to 2002, including $3.3 million Superintendent Michael E. Hickey will seek in this year's budget.

The board will vote on the proposal at a later meeting.

Sandi Marx, director of the special education office, said the plan was prompted by amendments to the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act emphasizing school accountability and more exposure to the general curriculum for special education students. Schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan added that changes in the school system since the last plan was offered in 1992 also warranted a new program.

Changes in other districts

Howard County isn't the only school district making changes in special education.

Anne Arundel might revamp its special education program in light of an audit showing that the program's budget had ballooned almost 30 percent since 1993. Baltimore school officials agreed last month to allow more disabled students to learn in regular classrooms, the latest step stemming from a 14-year-old lawsuit.

Though the Howard program focuses on special education, the drafters are asking for more regular education services to prevent the unnecessary placement of students in special education. "We must not wait until the achievement gap is so wide that special education becomes the only answer," the drafters wrote.

"This is one of the first times we've made suggestions for general education," Marx said. "If general education is able to accommodate youth who may need some extra help the kids have an option. The schools don't feel like they have to refer the kids to special ed."

Marx said the school system wants to decrease the relatively high number of African-American students in special education. Last year, black children made up about 21 percent of the special education population while they comprised 16 percent of the overall student community, Marx said.

A committee is studying how cultural and economic differences affect how students are identified as learning-disabled.

"It's a nationwide problem and it is a statewide problem," Marx said. "The thought is that teachers may be too quick to identify rather than adjust the teaching to meet the needs of the child. It is a multidimensional problem, and it needs to be attacked from many sides. I think we're going to get better at this."

Staffing problems

The plan also addresses staffing. According to the document, a study showed that some schools are understaffed because special education instructors are provided based on the total enrollment at a school.

The drafters noted that the school system has experienced "significant" turnover with special education teachers because of the increasing demands and caseloads. There also has been a lack of candidates to fill job vacancies.

"There is a nationwide shortage, and Howard County is no exception," Marx said.

To fill in the gaps, the new program calls for about 160 new positions by 2002, many of them part time. In one major initiative, services for preschoolers with multiple special needs would be expanded from a half-day to a full day at a cost of $1.3 million.

Because the new Maryland high school assessment tests will affect students in general and special education, the plan recommends developing a high school pilot program to help high school students with special needs meet the test requirements. The pilot would emphasize using subject-area teachers to instruct special education students, the majority of whom seek diplomas, Marx said.

Less adversarial process

School officials said they are eager to make the special education process less adversarial for parents and staff members. Disagreements over individual programs for students with learning disabilities have led to legal disputes between families and the school system.

Last year, school board candidate Glenn Amato made his long-running dispute with the school system over the special education of his son the centerpiece of his campaign. While other parents have complained that the process discounts their input, Caplan said administrators and teachers have also felt increasingly intimidated by the potential for legal action.

"We reflect society, and we are a litigious society," Marx said. "I don't think you would have seen a special education lawyer in the mid-'80s. Now there are many of them."

If the proposal is adopted, a staff member would act as a liaison between the school system and parents, and an ombudsman would be available. Special education parents would be recruited to serve on each curriculum advisory committee, and parents would have access to workshops, newsletters and perhaps a Web site to address their concerns.

"We want to take the initiative in reaching out to our parents and change [the process]," said Associate Superintendent Sandra J. Erickson. "We don't have to rely on the lawyers to change it. I'd like us to be leaders in the country in this particular area.

"I've had letters from parents who were upset with the school system who are so happy with the new attitude. It's going to be different here in Howard County."

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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