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A Class Struggle

City Inclusion Effort Brings Serious Problems

February 5, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

Some 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 to school.

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 me."

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 schools.

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 are exasperated.

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 haphazardly."

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 classrooms.

"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 feel scared.

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 months ago.

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 say.

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 program.

"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 of it."

Too Fast

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 environment."

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 treating it."

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."

What Next?

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 lawsuit.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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