Learning curve

The Baltimore Sun

Praising reforms initiated by Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso, a special master overseeing a 25-year-old special-education lawsuit is recommending less judicial oversight at most of the city's elementary schools.

Alonso publicly committed yesterday to ending the wide-ranging case that costs the school system millions of dollars a year by 2011, when his contract as CEO is up for renewal. But much work lies ahead to improve services to special-education students in the system's middle and high schools.

"Within two years, we're out of this, or we're not acceptable," Alonso said at a news conference that he and state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick called to celebrate the findings of a report filed by Amy Totenberg, the special master. The city school system and the state are co-defendants in the federal class action suit brought in 1984 by lawyers for students with disabilities.

During Alonso's first year and a half on the job, Totenberg wrote, "he has brought a high level of urgency, drive, candor, and intellectual command to school reform efforts in Baltimore that had not been evident during the many preceding years. ... His leadership represents an extraordinary opportunity for the [system] to leap forward in its delivery to educational services to students with disabilities, as well as to all students."

Totenberg's report also praises the work of state-appointed managers who were sent by the court to help oversee special education in 2005. She asks that the system and the state recommend to the court what the managers' role should be going forward.

The system is trying to get out from under a consent decree and its costly legal and monitoring fees. In 2000, the parties in the suit agreed to 15 measures by which the system would be evaluated. Over the years, the court agreed that the system was in compliance with eight of the 15.

Totenberg is recommending that, in most elementary schools, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis make three of the seven remaining measures inactive: one involving the system's ability to discipline special-education students appropriately and two involving the federal law that they be educated alongside their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible. For years, students were punished without proper consideration of their disabilities and segregated unnecessarily.

In combined elementary/middle schools, the monitoring would continue in middle school for discipline and in all grades for unnecessary segregation. The report lists some elementary schools where Totenberg recommends that monitoring continue, either because of concerns or lack of data.

In all, about 100 of 130 schools serving elementary grades would get relief on the discipline measure. About 60 would see less oversight of the regulations related to unnecessary segregation.

Unless any of the parties in the case objects to Totenberg's recommendations, Garbis is likely to adopt them. Neither the school system nor the state will object; the plaintiffs at the Maryland Disability Law Center declined to comment on their intentions. Leslie Margolis, a lawyer at the center, said the system still has a long way to go, but "having just marked the 25th anniversary of this lawsuit, it's very refreshing to have leadership that cares."

By making the measures inactive, the court would retain the right to resume its oversight if problems arise. But Totenberg indicated that the schools could be designated compliant by this summer if their progress continues. Her report reviews the system's performance during the 2007-2008 academic year.

The 113-page report details many problems in middle and high schools. The majority of special-education students in Baltimore do not finish high school. And, according to the report, students with disabilities are disproportionately concentrated in 10 city high schools where special-education enrollment exceeds 25 percent. More than one in six of the system's 82,000 students receive special-education services.

The report calls Alonso's initiatives in Baltimore, including curriculum reform and an overhaul of how schools are funded, "enormously promising in their range, substance, and potential for improving educational services." It says Alonso "has clearly galvanized the school system and begun to put in place essential building blocks for change."

But it points out that the reform is new. "There is a distance between future implementation and the here and now," it says, and in the past, progress "has too often evaporated under the pressure of funding cuts, politics, and sudden organizational upheaval."

Yesterday's news conference was significant not only for the accomplishments noted, but also for the alliances forged. In 2005, when Garbis ordered Grasmick to send the team of state managers into the system, state and city officials were bickering.

The bitter relationship improved after the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, in which incumbent Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. criticized the city schools and Martin O'Malley, the mayor who won the race, defended them. Grasmick was allied with Ehrlich, and then-schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland sided with O'Malley.

"In hindsight, we can all stand together and say, together, we helped move this ball forward," city school board Chairman Brian D. Morris said yesterday. Grasmick said the progress made "really speaks to the incredible power of a strong partnership."

When the state managers began their work, Garbis had ordered the system to provide more than 90,000 hours of makeup services to students who had missed speech therapy, counseling and other services to which they are legally entitled during the 2004-2005 academic year. The special master's report says the system - having provided 60,000 hours and written off 30,000 as undeliverable - has finally met that obligation.

key events in lawsuit

1984: Lawyers sue Baltimore's school system on behalf of students with disabilities.

1988: The parties enter into a consent decree.

1994: The Maryland State Department of Education voluntarily joins the suit as a defendant.

2000: The parties agree to 15 measures to evaluate city schools.

2005: Despite complying with eight measures, the system slips during a financial crisis, and a judge orders the state to send managers to help oversee special education.

2009: A special master recommends relief for most elementary schools on three of the remaining measures, and CEO Andres Alonso vows to end the case by 2011.

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