At an administrative hearing this summer, Cynthia Bauer did what she thought was the best thing to convince a judge that Harford County public schools weren't doing enough for her 9-year-old son Michael: She had him read.
It proved a poignant moment, as the third-grader struggled with simple words such as "cat." The state administrative law judge later ordered the school system to pay more than $12,000 for the boy to attend a private school for the learning disabled.
The dispute also highlighted what Bauer views as the county's inability to offer adequate services for students with serious reading problems.
"Michael is not an isolated incident, though they would like to think that he is," said Bauer. "The school system just doesn't handle learning difficulties very well."
Harford County public school officials vehemently dispute that, even as they decline to discuss the specifics of Bauer's case because the dispute is continuing.
Janet Ambrose, Harford's director of special education, said teachers and administrators, as required by federal law, work closely with parents and students to identify learning disabilities and draft an instructional plan for each child.
"If either a parent or teacher suggests there may be a problem, it goes to a team process," said Ambrose, whose system has about 5,500 students receiving a wide range of special education instruction, from reading tutors to individualized classes. "We try to determine what alternatives are available."
Statewide, there were 111,688 special education students in Maryland, as of last fall, according to the most recent state figures available. Of those, 4,100 were in special public day schools and more than 3,000 were in nonpublic, special day schools.
Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education and early intervention services, said federal guidelines call for a child to be placed in a private school only as a last resort after officials have made every attempt to educate the student in public school.
"Sometimes you are sort of caught between federal guidelines that students be taught at their neighborhood school and parent preference," said Baglin.
Leslie Margolis, an attorney with Maryland Disabilities Law Center who specializes in education issues, said school systems must make every accommodation for students with special needs.
"Parents often feel like the instruction their children are receiving in the school system is not adequate, and the system says it is," Margolis said. "The bottom line is that there is supposed to be a full range of services available to those students."
Michael Bauer's learning problems began before kindergarten. Bauer said her son, diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), struggled through school, repeating the first grade and taking a battery of psychological and learning evaluation tests.
"After four years of education, he knew 20 words," Bauer said. "I thought, 'Where is my son going to be when he graduates from high school?' "
Though the boy was given special education instruction in reading, writing, math and speech, his parents thought it would be better for him to be placed in a private school. They listed, among other factors, the emotional strain on Michael as he slipped behind his classmates.
"Year after year, there was constant failure, and his self-esteem was going down," Bauer said. "September of 1998 is when I really started saying enough is enough."
In April this year, the Bauers -- at their own expense -- enrolled Michael in Highland Learning Center, a small, private school in north Harford County that specializes in helping students with learning disabilities. The tuition at Highland is $12,194 a year.
School officials, however, insisted that they could serve Michael adequately in public school. Because the school and Michael's parents could not resolve the issue, the Bauers decided to take part in a due process hearing.
In a decision dated Aug. 20, state Administrative Law Judge Marleen B. Miller ruled that, in contrast to what Michael received in public schools, "the child has received educational benefit at Highlands, which has addressed and is prepared to continue addressing all his unique needs."
The judge ruled that the Bauers should be reimbursed and that the boy should remain at Highland at the county's expense.
The Harford County school system is considering appealing the decision.
Pub Date: 10/18/99