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Md. schools face crisis over special education


Like hospitals that can't find enough doctors, Maryland schools face a crisis in treating children with reading ailments.

A severe shortage of special education teachers - those trained to deal with learning disabilities, most often expressed as reading problems - is shortchanging needy pupils nationally and in Maryland. And that soon will be compounded by a harsh demographic fact: More than half of the state's teachers will be eligible for retirement by 2003.

"It's a terrible time for special education in many parts of the state," says Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education. "We hardly have a qualified work force to begin with."

This comes as many new teachers - bound for special education and regular elementary school classrooms - are leaving the state's teacher training schools ill-prepared to identify reading problems and address them early enough to help children heading for failure.

The result is an expanding network of frustrated parents and teachers who think the schools could do a better job for the more than one in five children with reading problems.

They point out that such area schools as Jemicy and Odyssey, which specialize in teaching children with dyslexia and other reading disabilities, have known for decades how to teach reading successfully.

Jean Kraynick, one of the frustrated, says she wants to put out a bumper sticker: "My child made the honor roll, but he can't read this bumper sticker."

Kraynick of Westminster has a master's degree in reading and special education, taught special education for 25 years in Carroll County and watched legions of eager new teachers arrive in schools.

"My master's degree in no way prepared me for working with special education kids," she says, "and I'm afraid things haven't improved much."

Adds G. Reid Lyon, who heads reading research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda: "There's an enormous amount of evidence that teachers aren't trained to teach reading to students who arrive in their classrooms from diverse backgrounds and with a wide range of abilities."

In a 1999 federal survey, only 20 percent of teachers nationally expressed confidence in their abilities to meet the needs of students with reading disabilities. Lyon says it's not an exaggeration to say many such children are "teacher-disabled."

At Coppin State College, a steady source of teachers for Baltimore schools, Lori Harris recalls walking into her own classroom for the first time eight years ago at Cherry Hill Elementary in southern Baltimore. She was just 21, with a degree in education from Loyola College and high hopes.

"I had all these wonderful bright ideas for teaching school," says Harris, now 29 and an assistant professor of education at Coppin. "But it was all based on the idea that I had a class all on grade level - not a class that would be a grade or two, or more, below average."

Not one child in her second-grade class was reading at grade level. "I couldn't do the things I wanted to do, things I really wanted to do," she recalls. "I was pretty disheartened because I had spent most of my summer preparing. ... I assumed they were all going to be on level."

Harris adds a bit plaintively: "I don't know why I thought that."

The disconnect between the need for many more teachers who know how to address reading problems and the training that would-be teachers receive in the state's education schools is particularly acute in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

But all areas of the state are facing severe shortages of certified special education teachers, and some districts are seeing shortages of reading specialists - experts with master's degrees who act as mentors to the more generally trained elementary school teachers and who tutor the most troubled young readers.

Despite such recently approved state-funded inducements as college scholarships, tax credits and signing bonuses, school districts across Maryland are casting nets as far away as India to find teachers. In particular, "the special education drawer is empty," says Patricia L. Skebeck, Harford County director of elementary education.

Fully a third of Baltimore's 1,289 special education teachers have provisional licenses, which means they have college degrees but not necessarily experience in teaching disabled children to read - and most children in special education have reading difficulty. (Statewide, about one in nine special education teachers are provisionally licensed.)

And increasingly, Maryland school districts are staffing classrooms with substitutes who might have no training in reading education.

"Some of the subs are good, some of them are terrible," says Gayle Amos, head of special education services in the city. "They might have a degree in religion. Some come in, last a few days and then leave. Imagine if you're a child or a parent, and you see four or five teachers in a month or two."

Amos estimates the city shortage at 70 to 80 teachers. Maryland schools need to hire about 1,250 special education teachers this fall, 800 of them in urban and suburban districts, according to state estimates and a survey by The Sun. But the projected pool of trained teachers - a pool from which all districts draw - will be short by about 175 teachers.

That shortage is bound to hit Baltimore most drastically. "The situation in the city is tragic," says Susan P. Leviton, a University of Maryland law professor and activist on children's issues. "There's not a requirement that you know how to do anything, so all the emphasis is on procedure. It's not on quality. What are they doing to improve reading in special education?"

'Very scary'

Return to Lori Harris' first year as a teacher in Cherry Hill.

In college, the Coppin professor had been taught about children who were not reading on grade levels and about remedial efforts. But she thought these needy children "were going to be in a special ed class, or special classes. I know myself, I didn't think I was going to teach them to read.

"I thought they were going to come to me at least reading some. I had children come to me who were reading none. It's very scary. I was very disappointed. I was just like: What am I going to do?"

Eight years later, teachers still tend to leave the 22 education colleges in Maryland just as unprepared to deal with such widespread reading problems.

Education majors in Maryland are required to take a special education course, but Baglin, the assistant state superintendent for special education, says that course is "typically taught as a survey of disabilities."

"They usually don't get into reading content," she acknowledges. "They're all about strategies and methods, which are important, but they're not everything. You've got to learn what reading is."

Three years ago, Maryland quadrupled, from one course to four, the required college coursework in reading instruction for elementary teachers, including those in special education.

"This means," says Grasmick, "we should see improvement if - and it's a big if - these courses are conducted as promised. You can submit the best syllabus in the world, then close your door and continue doing the same old thing."

According to the state, these new courses are supposed to stress the critical role of phonics in initial reading instruction, the method backed by 30 years of research on reading programs and by recent studies of brain function.

But many education schools - including Towson University, which graduates about 500 new teachers each year, the largest number in the state - give relatively less emphasis to systematic phonics. A Sun reporter who took two reading courses at the school last year observed little rigorous instruction in the structure of language or how to teach sound-letter relationships.

Towson officials counter that they were beefing up their reading courses before the new state requirements were issued. "Our program has never been more rigorous," says Dennis Hinkle, the education dean, "and it's received national praise, not criticism."

But the superintendent says she is impatient with the progress of Maryland's teacher-education schools.

"The sheep-dip approach to reading - a little over here, a little over there - doesn't work anymore," she says. "Teachers have to have a thorough repertoire of knowledge and strategies."

Frustrated parents

In recent years, reading experts have reached a consensus that the repertoire of all teachers should include an understanding of neurological disorders such as dyslexia and how they're best treated.

That's usually through a structured approach using hearing, movement, touch, sound and sight with systematic phonics as the instructional bedrock.

The failure of many Maryland public schools to provide such programs has given rise to a growing number of frustrated parents complaining that educators are failing to detect reading problems early enough or to provide timely and sufficient remediation.

As a result, by the time they reach third grade, children with unaddressed reading problems are often far behind their peers and are assigned to special education classes, in which they are lumped together with pupils with disabilities ranging from emotional disturbances to mental retardation.

This happens even though many are dyslexic, a disability believed to be neurological and often associated with above-average intelligence.

Some families have spent years - and thousands of dollars - trying to get special services for their reading-impaired children in public schools.

Teresa L. Ankney drives four hours each day between Frederick and Owings Mills to take her two sons to Jemicy, a private school nationally known for its teaching of dyslexic pupils. She and her husband have spent thousands of dollars in a legal battle now in federal appeals court.

They contend that, because Frederick County has failed to educate their sons, it should pay their tuition at Jemicy. Frederick's public school "special education teachers simply aren't prepared in reading," says Ankney, a Hood College sociology professor who adds that legal fees have pushed her family to the brink of bankruptcy. "I'm afraid it's a dysfunctional system in heavy denial."

Frederick school officials declined to comment because the case is in the courts.

Frustrated by what they saw as a lack of responsiveness to such reading problems in the public schools, several parents established a school of their own two years ago, Friendship School in western Howard County. Founded with 20 pupils, Friendship has grown to 30, most from families "who had nowhere to go educationally in the public schools," says Suzanne Jacobson, a nurse and consultant in Frederick.

Jacobson, like many others, says teachers should be trained to screen in kindergarten for reading problems, just as they do for hearing and vision difficulties. "It's simply a wellness approach," she says. "You provide intervention before you have to put Band-Aids on in the second grade."

In Perry Hall in Baltimore County, Dreama Cavoures is similarly frustrated. Her 11-year-old son, Antonio, is in the fifth-grade special education program at Seven Oaks Elementary. Baltimore County, charged by federal law with educating Antonio, is paying for tutoring, but he reads at the second-grade level.

"The school is well-meaning, but they just don't get it," Cavoures says. "They're hoping people like me will get private tutors, and everything will take care of itself. He's made no progress in three years."

This fall, Antonio will be enrolled in a small private school in Owings Mills that specializes in teaching pupils with disabilities. The county will pay the tuition - about $26,000 a year, Cavoures says - "but this could have been avoided seven years ago."

Of course, there are success stories.

More than a year ago, Marilyn Neidhart, a first-grade teacher at Jarrettsville Elementary School in Harford County, telephoned Tony and Dawn Cerino. The Cerinos' daughter, Alexis, now 8, was "having some problems." Her grades were good, but she was showing signs of dyslexia.

The Cerinos had noticed the same thing. "She was struggling with putting her thoughts on paper, and she was writing her threes backward," recalls Dawn Cerino, even though since nursery school the child had been able to write a mirror image of her name.

The Cerinos paid for three days of testing by a private psychologist. The diagnosis: a form of dyslexia.

"When we went to the school, they couldn't have reacted more positively," Dawn Cerino says. As this school year arrived, Jarrettsville's principal, Gerard Mack, got help for Alexis, and her mother says she's "getting the attention she needs to continue to excel in reading and in life. We see the difference every day, especially in her self-esteem."

Alexis might be particularly lucky. From their windows, the Cerinos can see the home of the voluntary tutor Mack assigned to Alexis. She's Sara M. Porter, a retired Baltimore County teacher, activist member of the Towson-based International Dyslexia Association and proponent of the structured, multisensory, phonics-laden way of teaching reading employed at Jemicy.

The Cerinos had just moved to Jarrettsville. "It was my daughter's first year at the school," Dawn Cerino recalls. "To have Sara Porter just arrive out of the blue was like a fairy tale."

Porter has spent hundreds of hours prodding school officials across Maryland, crusading for better ways of identifying dyslexics and providing them more effective reading instruction - the sooner the better. "Waiting for remediation has doomed many children to failure," she says.

Phonemic awareness

On a recent weekend, a seminar at the Jemicy School displayed other approaches that many believe would result in more children reading proficiently - if more teachers knew how to employ them.

About 50 parents, tutors and public school teachers crowded into a Jemicy classroom for two days' training in phonological awareness, the ability to identify and segment the sounds of the language. Most educators consider phonemic awareness a necessary precondition to learning to read, and these people had plunked down $150 to learn about it.

Most of the session was devoted to the structure of English. The parents and educators learned how to play simple games with nursery rhymes and simple poems, how to use color in teaching children about sounds, how to blend sounds and take them apart, and how to test young children's auditory skills.

"Nothing about this is dull drill," said the instructor, Jane Baker. "Language is fun; it's not the monster that's going to rule us."

The two-day Jemicy workshop devoted more time to the sound structure of language than did Towson University professors in two semester-long reading courses taken last year by a Sun reporter.

In the Jemicy program, there's a sense of excitement that by "building language from the ground up," as Baker puts it, "we can raise verbal IQs." By contrast, the teacher college approach is a literary pastiche.

As a result, many new teachers find themselves unprepared for the task of teaching reading.

"I think they come in very well-prepared academically," says Anne Werps, a 20-year veteran who is now a reading specialist at Pleasant Plains Elementary School in eastern Baltimore County. "But they quickly become overwhelmed by what they're expected to do."

That's echoed by Eric Isselhardt, headmaster of the Norbel School in Baltimore, another school specializing in teaching children with learning disorders.

New teachers come in "with a pretty good background in theory," he says. "We spend a whole lot of time helping them turn the theory to practice. The public schools just don't have the time. New teachers get crushed."

Werps is among many who believe new teachers should have veteran mentors in their early years on the job. Her mentor was her mother, Marcella Stigelmire, a 36-year veteran Baltimore County teacher and administrator who visited her daughter's classrooms regularly until she died in 1998.

When Lori Harris didn't know what to do with her class of below-average or nonreaders, she also turned to her mother, Patricia Scales, who taught elementary grades in the Washington, D.C., school system for nearly 30 years.

"I told her about my class and said, 'Momma, do they have a different reading system in Baltimore City?'" Harris recalls.

"She said: 'Uh-uh, that system is everywhere. They just don't read."

Her mother then advised Harris: "Go in and start with phonics. Go in there and close the door and teach them to read!"

Harris did just that. She had to purchase supplemental phonics-oriented teaching materials on her own. Unschooled in phonics, she first used them to teach herself - and then her pupils.

That year, she learned the value of hard work and consistency - and of being prepared for the realities of teaching reading, something she now demands at Coppin.

"They know that they're going to get students that could be below level," she says. "They know that. They're not going out with what I like to call a mis-education."

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