Acknowledging that many end up in special education because minor learning difficulties go untreated, Baltimore school officials are poised to begin a program to boost help to the city's struggling students.
Under an agreement signed by the city and lawyers representing special education students, a team of professionals would be set up in each school to diagnose and treat a failing student's problem before he or she begins to fall behind.
The school system hopes to reduce the city's huge special education population, among the highest in the nation.
Special education experts in Baltimore have long believed those labeled as having disabilities are average students who became the victims of a poor educational system.
The agreement must be approved in two weeks by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who is overseeing the settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed a decade ago by special education students. If approved, the city's new plan would start this year in three city districts: the southern, southwestern and mid-city areas. The plan would be implemented in other areas of the city in subsequent years.
Steve Ney, legal director of the Maryland Disabilities Law Center and one of the lawyers representing special education students, said he hoped that by catching students' problems early, the team could help teachers figure out ways to keep students on track so they don't need to be referred for special education services.
"We want to stop more inappropriate referrals to special education and to make a commitment to improve the education for all the children," Ney said.
City school officials declined to comment on the agreement. "We think it is premature. The judge has not signed the order," said Gayle Amos, head of special education services in the city.
With 18,000 of its 100,000 students receiving special services, Baltimore has one of the highest percentages of special education students in the nation.
The cost of providing services to these students has climbed more than 50 percent over the past seven years, draining money away from other students.
Disparity in services
Teachers and principals have complained that, while some special education students received one-on-one aids and door-to-door transportation, remaining students were relegated to schools with large class sizes, inadequate libraries and few "extras" such as art, music and physical education.
An analysis of the city's special education budget for the 1997-1998 school year showed that one-third of the unrestricted school budget was spent on special education.
No similar assessment was available for the past school year.
Even as the budget ballooned, special education students did not receive the services they were supposed to receive under federal law, largely because the school system was ailing, school officials and lawyers acknowledge. Only systemic fixes would help students, experts said.
New approach planned
Now, a decade after the city settled a class-action lawsuit brought by special education students, the system will begin to try a systematic approach to keep struggling students from failing and ending up in special education.
The agreement also details dozens of other actions the school system must continue to take to comply with the case's settlement, including training for teachers and more participation by parents of special education students.
For example, it would require the school system to train principals and assistant principals to identify teachers that need extra help in teaching children with disabilities and to help them treat all students in their building the same.
"Even if a child learns in a different way, they all have to have the same opportunities for learning," Ney said.
The school system also will provide more training to teachers on how to help children with behavior problems.