February 5, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
nights, 8-year-old Brian Miranda has nightmares and wakes up almost
hourly. In the morning, everything is a fight: climbing out of bed,
getting dressed, sitting down to breakfast and walking out the door
Last year, when Brian was in a class
of nine students and had what his mother describes as a patient
special education teacher, Brian liked school. But this year, as
part of a sweeping effort to end the segregation of special education
students in Hartford, Brian has been placed in a mainstream class
of 23 students at Batchelder Elementary School.
And he hates it.
"I am very angry with the school,"
said Margerie Miranda, Brian's mother. "They are not helping
To comply with a landmark court case
on educating children with learning disabilities or emotional problems,
the Hartford public school system in September transferred 1,300
special education students from segregated programs to neighborhood
The massive movement convulsed the
entire school system - which was, to some degree, expected. But
six months later, teachers, parents and experts say, the system
is still in crisis: Special education students are not getting the
services they need, regular classrooms are being disrupted and teachers
In a series of letters, lawyers who
advocate for children have outlined the system's failure to train
teachers or comply with students' individual education plans. Teachers
and parents are pleading for help. Children are refusing to go to
school. The state Department of Education has ordered the district
to pay for an outside audit.
"We're supportive of students
learning in the least restrictive environment," said George
Dowaliby, chief of the state Department of Education's Bureau of
Special Education. "We're not supportive of that being done
Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry
concedes that the program needs correcting, but he says the challenges
were expected considering the scope of the initiative. Henry said
he thought about going slower, but realized the changes were going
to require extensive training and adjusting regardless of the pace.
Because the federal No Child Left Behind
law requires all students to take the same tests, Henry said it
only makes sense for the children to be exposed to the curriculum
that will be tested. That's the curriculum in the regular education
"Are we where we want to be?"
Henry asked rhetorically. "Obviously not. But we're making
progress. We're fixing decadeslong issues in one year, one school
at a time.
"This is part of correcting the
ills of the past," Henry said. "We have a number of places
where it is working. The initiative is proceeding as smoothly as
can be expected."
Lost And Intimidated
Not smooth enough for many. Critics
of the program tick off a series of complaints:
Some blended classes are too large for teachers to handle.
Special education students are feeling lost and intimidated.
Regular education students are getting distracted.
Autistic youngsters are having some of the hardest times blending
in, teachers say, particularly in the middle schools where they
In a recent letter to Henry, Martha
Stone, executive director of the Center for Children's Advocacy
at the University of Connecticut School of Law, asserted that the
failure of the district to give students proper support is actually
harming some children.
One student represented by the law
center was so desperate he asked his classmate to kill him, Stone
wrote. Last year, the letter says, the boy made gains in schools.
But this year he regressed.
Two of the law center's other clients,
who attend Fox Middle School, are refusing to go to school. One
is embarrassed by his inability to perform on the same level as
his peers in the classroom of mixed abilities; the other is upset
over "the change in her environment."
At least one school -- Quirk Middle
School -- had so much trouble mainstreaming two dozen students with
emotional disturbances and disruptive behavior that it bucked the
district's policy of full inclusion and confined the students to
"transitional" self-contained classrooms.
Jay Nieves, 14, was among those. He
had so much trouble with all the transitions -- and with the loss
of a mentor teacher who was transferred to a different school several
months into the school year -- that he stopped going to school three
The class that was created for Jay and some of his peers was made
up largely of students transferred from a special school for emotionally
disturbed children, the Hartford Transitional Learning Academy.
The academy students were transferred to Quirk as part of the mainstreaming
initiative, though Jay did not attend the academy. The new class
at Quirk was chaotic, Jay said, and too distracting for him to concentrate.
"They used to jump on the desks
and write on their desks," he said of his peers. "They
were out of control. It was like a zoo. I could do good in a regular
class, but the kids are just running around screaming."
The fallout has not been limited to
special education students.
In Hartford, where the regular education
program presents extraordinary challenges on its own, the addition
of this intensive mainstreaming initiative has also made the burden
of focusing on everyday teaching that much more difficult, teachers
At Sanchez Elementary School, for example,
where more than 100 of the school's 500 students are now special
education students, nearly 200 others are new arrivals in the bilingual
"We are so tired, so overwhelmed,"
said Delia Bello, principal of Sanchez. "I feel a lot of empathy
for my teachers."
While the integration effort may strengthen
empathy in some students, Bello said others are distracted or mimic
the behavior of misbehaving children.
"Regular education students --
if they are emotionally unstable, the special education kids trigger
them to change their behavior," Bello said. "It's very
important to have small classes," she said, or to have a special
education teacher in every room.
Teachers' union leader Cathy Carpino,
though supportive of the philosophy behind inclusion, does not see
a single redeeming facet in the way it was carried out.
"The whole way that inclusion
was implemented was haphazard and illconceived and contrary to every
suggestion that the union suggested," Carpino said. "Every
time you pick up a rock, there's more worms. I'm so damned sick
The mainstreaming effort was driven
by a lawsuit brought by a West Hartford parent who wanted his son
to be in classes with students who didn't have disabilities.
The settlement of P.J. vs. State of
Connecticut in 2001 required the state to support local school districts
and to monitor compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act -- a law that requires schools to educate students
with disabilities in the least restrictive environments.
In previous years, many of those students
who were mentally retarded and/ or had speech and language, hearing,
emotional and behavioral and other disabilities were bused around
the district to attend special programs.
But the segregation of those students
--particularly those with extreme emotional and behavioral problems
-- prevented them from learning from their higher-performing peers
who model better behavior, said Romain Dallemand, assistant superintendent
for special education services.
The old way of teaching special education
students wasn't getting results, he said, noting that the district's
graduation rate for such students was 16 percent.
Of Hartford's 24,000 students, about
4,000 are classified as special education students. Last year, about
60 percent were in regular education classrooms for at least half
the day. This year, the number is 85 percent.
The number of special education students
who meet the federal definition of inclusion -- 80 percent of the
day or more in a regular classroom -- increased from 50 percent
to 72 percent as the number of self-contained classrooms dropped
from 88 to 16.
But critics say school officials have
not provided adequate staffing, or training, to address so sweeping
a change. Many students with severe learning disabilities or emotional
disturbances need teachers who are highly trained to work with them.
Sometimes they need their own aides to spend the entire day with
them because they can't learn or function on their own.
But more than two dozen classroom aides
called for in individual education plans -- documents that carry
the weight of law -- have yet to be hired by the district.
On Jan. 5, the superintendent approved
spending the money to hire those aides, but critics say they should
have been hired before the school year started. Carpino, the union
president, also complains that teachers are not adequately trained
to control students with profound behavioral problems or to work
with students who don't learn well under traditional teaching methods.
When some valuable training was offered, it took place over the
summer when teachers were on vacation rather than during the school
year, she said. The district didn't offer stipends for the summer
training, as it did for other training that was offered.
Critics also point out that while the
initiative is ostensibly a high priority, Henry recently excluded
Dallemand, the assistant superintendent in charge of mainstreaming,
from his weekly cabinet meetings.
"It's astounding that you meet
with your public relations person once a week, but you meet with
your special education administrator once a month," Carpino
said. "Where's the priorities? You can't take this big change
and do it as you go along. This is not a priority -- it's lip service."
Henry said he meets with Dallemand
regularly and that Dallemand is working closely with the deputy
superintendent who oversees curriculum, as well as with the district's
human resources director.
Henry concedes that officials need
to review the individualized education plans for each special education
student to ensure that students are getting the support they need.
"If the least restrictive environment
is not working for youngsters," Henry said, "then we have
to determine whether the services are in place for him. Then if
it's not working for some, then they'll go back to a more restrictive
But he takes umbrage at the suggestion
that mainstreaming is not a high priority for him. "It is one
of the highest priorities in our school year and this is how we're
Henry defended the multitude of academic
initiatives in place that Carpino complains are competing for attention.
"The emphasis on preschool, the
higher education initiative, school climate, magnets, new arrivals
-- it's all part of our urban agenda," Henry said.
"There's no question we have an
emphasis on inclusion, but there isn't any one thing we can abandon."
In the first month of the inclusion
initiative at Sanchez School, one student cornered Bello, the principal,
with a knife, she said. Others kicked her and more than one spit
in her face.
The school has mainstreamed students
in a limited way for more than 10 years, but this year it has absorbed
more than 100 transferred special education students.
"The first month it was really
bad," Bello said.
But despite the challenges the school
faces with its large special education and bilingual population,
district officials say Sanchez School is a place where inclusion
is starting to work.
Bello looked past the temper tantrums
and experimented. Her social workers now greet some of the more
challenging special education students when they enter the school,
and visit them in their classes to help them get ready for the day.
Teachers are using visual cues for
students who need them. The aide for one student took pictures of
him throughout his day behaving as he should: One picture shows
him in front of the school before he enters; another shows him walking
-- not running -- in the halls.
Other students who have trouble sitting
through long classes get breaks if they behave well. Some help the
custodian wipe tables and sweep the cafeteria, while others help
the cooks by counting trays and setting them out.
District officials say they are confident
that the efforts being made by Bello and others will eventually
translate into broader success. Next year, if all goes according
to plan, even more special education students will be transferred
to regular classes throughout the district.
"We still have 20 percent excluded,"
Dallemand said. "How long are we going to wait to do what's
right for kids?"
But the district may not be alone in
determining how best to proceed.
Although Stone declined to say whether
she is planning to sue the school district for violating laws that
protect children with disabilities, she did not rule that possibility
out. Stone participated in the landmark Sheff vs. O'Neill desegregation
The law center also called on Henry
to commission an outside audit of special education services, though
Dowaliby, at the state Department of Education, was already thinking
along the same lines. When his staff, which has been visiting schools
in Hartford, found many of the same problems that Stone's staff
identified, he directed the school district to use some of its federal
aid to pay for an outside audit of special education services.
"It is unusual that we have directed
that federal funds be used in that way. It's rare, but we think
it's important and we don't have the resources to do an audit ourselves,"
Dowaliby said. "We'd like to see it as soon as possible. We
have repeatedly found students where services are not in place."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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