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Law doesn't fit all, teachers say

Kevin Jaros, a 15-year-old with multiple disabilities, needs an escort to find his way to the school bus.

To teach him about the human digestive system, his teacher, Tammy Wolanin, created the stomach, intestines and other parts in colors and textures Kevin can recognize and then stick into place on a model.

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He has to repeat the task over and over again to pass the alternative Maryland State Assessment -- also known as the alt-MSA -- the state's version of standardized testing for special education students.

This is one of many stories that Carol Petrosky hears from fellow special education teachers at the Ruth Parker Eason School in Millersville.

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She is one of 400 teachers the National Education Association profiled Monday to mark the fifth anniversary of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The teachers union marks the anniversary every year by sharing classroom challenges, hoping to persuade Congress to substantially change the law, which comes up for reauthorization this year.

"We're not trying to upend the whole thing," said Reg Weaver, president of the association, which represents 3.2 million teachers, school administrators and student teachers. "Special education students should not be expected to learn the same things."

No Child Left Behind requires schools to teach certain curricula and test students at regular intervals to monitor their progress. Schools with too many failing students can be taken over by the state and forced to undergo tighter scrutiny.

State and federal education departments have substantially softened No Child Left Behind since it was approved in 2002, building concessions into the law for students who speak foreign languages and those with severe disabilities.

Supporters of the law say it shines a spotlight on the performance of students who had long been in the shadows, particularly special needs and minority students.

Many special education advocates support challenging students more than they were in the past, said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.

"They feel there should be no artificial limits set for student performance," he said.

Eason, which met federal requirements in 2005, is one of three Anne Arundel County centers that teach children with severe disabilities such as retardation and autism.

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The 164 students at the school are working toward certificates rather than diplomas. Their goal is to get a job at special occupational centers that link disabled adults with low-skill jobs, such as envelope stuffing and paper shredding.

Some will be able to move into apartments and live under supervision. Others will have to live in group homes or with family.

Petrosky has taught special education at Eason for more than 20 years. Six of her nine students are autistic. She teaches them functional math and reading, such as how to read menus, tell time and count money.

Petrosky welcomes accountability and testing, but she said the law has forced teachers to spend hours preparing lessons that students will never use.

"I think we have just gotten lost in this law," she said.

No Child Left Behind might be effective for mainstream students but is not a model for students with severe developmental problems, such as 12-year-old Raven Harris, Petrosky said.

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Raven has a degenerative, terminal illness that has left her at the developmental stage of a 6-month-old, yet federal standards require that she be taught simple lessons on microscopes, shapes and other topics, then bebe tested on them.

The tests are along the lines of having the teacher guide Raven's arms to place laminated triangle shapes on a page.

Raven's mother, Dayna Harris, wants her teachers to focus only on what Raven needs, more physical therapy and behavioral skills, such as learning to walk with assistance.

"I know Raven can't learn science and math," said Harris, who lives in Millersville. "I don't think the law took into consideration that there are children in the school system who are not academically able to learn."

Kandy Chase, who was hired in July as the county's first alt-MSA specialist, taught at Eason and worked with Raven's teacher. Chase said Raven benefits from the stimulation.

"We don't expect them to master it or learn it," she said. "It's just exposure."

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And teachers benefit from learning new ways to teach, Chase said.

All of the children have binders of paperwork that teachers must fill out and label for review by a state panel. The time spent at home on reporting and testing requirements is wearing down veteran and first-time teachers, Petrosky said.

She said teachers want to return to the old system of testing students on objectives in individual education plans. The plans focus on what each child needs, something that is determined by the parent, several teachers and sometimes the student.

State officials empathize with teachers but have to follow federal requirements, said Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education and early intervention services. She said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has lobbied members of Congress on the issue and hopes changes can be made.

"There ought to be a way to distinguish between schools dealing with students with significant learning challenges and underperforming schools," Baglin said.

Special education students in Anne Arundel County middle and high schools are struggling to meet federal and state benchmarks in math and reading. In response, Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell proposed Jan. 3 that 22 special education teaching and support positions be added, at a cost of $1.2 million, to bolster student performance.

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In addition, the county has allowed teachers an extra half-day per student to prepare lesson plans and objectives.

Petrosky said teachers need more time. One of seven Maryland teachers who contributed stories to the NEA, Petrosky is working to be an advocate for Harris and members of her teaching staff.

She signs off her story on the NEA's Web site with a pledge and a plea for help.

"We will not be quiet," Petrosky wrote. "Please listen to our stories."


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