New programs aim to cure special ed

D.C. schools hope to bring students ‘home’

(Published August 11, 2003)


Staff Writer

D.C. Public Schools officials are planning to launch an extensive new group of programs for the upcoming year as a major step in efforts to "bring home" more than 11,000 special education students who are currently being sent under court order to private schools at taxpayer expense.

The new programs – intended to meet the special needs of students whose disabilities run the gamut from physical to emotional impairment – are expected to enroll approximately 500 students this fall at all grade levels.

The programs will be offered at 36 sites when schools open Sept. 2 and are expected to be expanded and replicated at other schools in future years, according to Assistant Superintendent Raymond Bryant, who heads the effort to reform the school district’s special education services.

This year, according to Bryant, all students requiring special education who are newly enrolled in the public schools will be placed into the new programs, rather than being sent outside the school system. Bryant said school officials will guarantee continued funding for the startup programs this year, regardless of their student count, with an eye toward offering good programs that will encourage parents whose children are now being sent elsewhere to voluntarily bring their children back to the public schools.

Special education expenses, which include tuition and transportation costs to get students to special schools, have long been criticized for costing taxpayers a disproportionately large share of the public school system’s budget. Much of the cost has been incurred through years of compliance with court orders to send students outside the District due to rulings that the local schools were unable to meet their special education needs.

During the past school year, 11,878 of the approximately 68,000 children enrolled in the public schools were classified as having some form of disability. School officials said that 45 percent of those students were classified as "learning disabled" without having a physical disability and the next largest group, at 18 percent, were classified as "emotionally disturbed." About 12 percent were considered "multiply disabled" and 10 percent had speech or language impairments. The remainder were classified as autistic, deaf, blind, hearing impaired, visually impaired, mentally retarded, orthopedically impaired, or as having a "traumatic brain injury" or other health impairment.

"We need to acknowledge that for every child with a disability there’s a job for them and a life for them, and it’s really up to us to match that child, that career, that dream, that desire to the world outside once they get ready to leave school," said Heather McCabe, executive director of the Medicaid unit in the school system’s Office of Special Education.

The federal Medicaid program reimburses the public school system for about 70 percent of the expenses associated with special education.

McCabe and other school officials attribute a great deal of improvement in the special education program over the past couple of years to initiation of the Special Education Tracking System (SETS), which began in 1999. SETS locates and defines the population of children who need specialized school services, as well as breaking up the special education population by divisions and individual schools. Before 1999 there was no comprehensive data system, which made it difficult to determine what programs should be started.

"What we’ve spent the last couple of years doing is trying to really define that and all the different influences and constraints involved in that population," said Anne Gay, assistant superintendent for special education.

Gay, who implemented SETS when she came to D.C. Public Schools in 1999, was recently suspended with pay along with three other school employees involved with the special education program while officials investigate the failure since 2002 to provide court-ordered learning equipment to a legally blind student. Also suspended were Judith Smith, director of the Office of Mediation and Compliance; Ronald Jenkins, an information technology specialist; and Alan Patterson, a supervisory computer specialist.

McCabe acknowledged that the suspensions will definitely affect the overall special education program but will not alter plans to implement the new in-house programs.

"We cannot have essential people out ... especially when the school year is about to begin," she said.

Yet she said she remains optimistic and insisted that everyone in the department is going to make the programs work during the upcoming school year.

"We have the kids and families in our hearts and that’s where our focus is," McCabe said. "We’ll make sure they get what they need."

Paula Perelman, executive director for policy and strategic planning, agreed that even though all of the suspended officials are key components for the program the special education department will carry on in their absence.

Officials said one of their major goals is to increase the school system’s capacity to serve as many special education students as possible at neighborhood schools in order to keep children closer to their homes. Students who need more specialized programs, such as those who are visually or hearing impaired and those with autism, will be able to attend geographic cluster schools that specialize in particular programs.

McCabe, who previously operated a special education program in Great Britain, said recognizing special needs in early childhood can be key to helping students succeed. School officials are working on expanding early childhood education by partnering with the federally funded Headstart early education program, she said.

"Encouraging children’s individual learning styles and harnessing that toward their strengths is what early childhood special ed does and a really good early childhood program does," McCabe said.

McCabe said it is important to foster different learning styles because all young children – with or without disabilities – delight in learning new things, yet after being in school for a couple of years without a good program, they can lose a great deal of their engagement with the world.

During a recent interview, Gay said that school officials are trying to make parents of students with special needs feel confident enough in the public schools’ ability to meet those needs so that they will put their children back in D.C. schools.

"We’re trying to get the parents to understand that, with some rare exceptions, the majority of kids can be served in their neighborhood schools," she said.

Gay said everyone has to see the education of children as a fundamental purpose in the community, as well.

"The earlier you can get services to a child, the quicker you can get them out of special ed. We want special ed to be a support service, not a lifetime sentence," she said.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator