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Native Intelligence
'Special' kids deserve better
(Published April 18, 2005)

By DIANA WINTHROP

In the make-believe world of movies and television, mentally challenged characters (now we also use the phrase "special needs" individuals, though in the past we called them "retarded") are portrayed as overcoming terrible difficulties in life, and every character triumphs in the end.

In 2001, Sean Penn played a mentally challenged father with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. He loses custody of his daughter but in the end teaches his lawyer the universal value of love and family. In the 2003 film "Radio," Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a mentally challenged high school student who over decades transforms from a shy, tormented character into an inspiration to the football team and the community.

Every parent of a special needs child in D.C. public schools wants that happy ending, even though most realize the outcome is fantasy just like the movies. They want their child to be as successful as the movie characters, but tragically, in the real world few students without enormous financial support overcome their difficulties and are allowed to triumph. Special needs children in D.C. Public Schools almost never triumph. In all too many cases, they barely survive.

In the past two months, I have talked with current and past teachers and parents at the Taft Diagnostic Center in Northeast Washington. I have spent hours listening to their concerns and complaints regarding the principal at the facility. I have reviewed numerous charges that were sent to DCPS officials. Critics charge that the teaching and learning environment has been poisoned, which is destructive for the teachers and students.

Unfortunately, Taft is not a unique facility. There are similar problems at other diagnostic centers where emotionally damaged children are placed, such as at Mamie D. Lee in Northeast. Parents and teachers there have complained about their principal as well. Most parents and teachers at Taft have been more vocal they have sought more intervention from school board members and from the city council, but by all accounts their complaints have not resulted in changes being made.

A number of council and school board members, as well as former special ed chief Ray Bryant (who recently left to become superintendent of schools in Elmira, N.Y.), have been given detailed accounts about the personnel problems at Taft.

Mary Lee Phelps, who recently was made the acting director of special education for the public schools, acknowledges she knows there are "some concerns" about the management of the facility. But since she is new in her position, she says she is not familiar with the details. Other special education staff carefully choose their words and characterize the problems at Taft as "challenging."

When the Taft center opened in 1999, the school system did little to find the best principal to manage the facility. Since the center opened, the facility has served 90 emotionally disturbed students from low-income families. Many of these families lack both the money and political sophistication to assure their children are obtaining the best.

For the past six years, there has been plenty of blame to go around.

Some of the teachers and parents are asking for a complete overhaul of the management of Taft through the removal of the current principal at the end of this school year. Since their complaints have until now been ignored, there are not many who are optimistic there will be changes made at the centers.

Superintendent Clifford Janey has been, by all accounts, focusing on institutional changes and cost reductions more than personnel problems during his first year. Janey recently announced the creation of a mediation pilot project. According to Kelly Evans executive director of the State Enforcement and Investigation Division for Special Education Programs, it is an attempt to respond to special needs parents and build more confidence than litigation of special education disputes engenders. The program will be run by neutral outside mediators rather than those working for DCPS. It is expected to save the school system millions.

Maybe Janey could use some of the millions saved to provide better management of the special education centers than now exists. There will be no fairy tale ending for special needs children in the District, but at least it would be a start.

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Diana Winthrop is a native Washingtonian. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator