May 12, 2009

Another step forward for special ed

A new state audit on "related services" in Baltimore schools reports significant improvement from last year, with noncompliance rates now in the single digits. That's a long way from the 90,000 hours of makeup services the system was ordered to provide back in 2005 when I started covering the city schools. And just last fall, the system acknowledged that it was not in compliance with the related services provision of the Vaughn G. consent decree. Now it's going to try to be freed from that provision.

So what happened? When I met with Dr. Alonso and Kim Lewis yesterday, Lewis mentioned careful monthly tracking of services. She also said the system shifted the financial burden to service providers when a student misses a service and needs a makeup. Before, a contractor could be paid twice for the same job, even though it wasn't performed the first time. There's efficiency for you.

MSDE has relieved the system of one corrective action plan, but six remain involving other areas of special ed. Another step forward. How many to go?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore City, SpecialEd

May 1, 2009

Spending the stimulus money

What to do with one-time stimulus money for IDEA and Title 1 that best not be used for new programs or hires? Arne Duncan told us yesterday that there's a huge need for professional development in special education -- for all teachers, not just those designated special ed. He'd love to see IDEA money spent on that and Title 1 money spent on lengthening school days, weeks and years.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:08 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Around the Nation, SpecialEd

March 7, 2009

Musings on the special ed report

In the wake of the Michael Steele flap, the special master's encouraging report on special ed progress in the city was more good timing for Dr. Alonso. He vowed to be out from under the quarter-century-old lawsuit by 2011.

Yesterday's press conference at Maryland Public Television -- Alonso and Dr. Grasmick were there anyway for a state superintendents meeting -- was a lovefest between city and state officials who, as Steele reminded us this week, couldn't stand each other just a few years back.

For anyone with a lot of extra time this weekend, I'm posting the special master's report. For everyone else, here are some things that stuck out to me that didn't get into my story today -- including more details of the problems with special ed in the city's secondary schools, which are not recommended for court relief:

Continue reading "Musings on the special ed report" »

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:56 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore City, SpecialEd

February 13, 2009

National reading expert comes to Baltimore County

A group of Baltimore County educators spent today in reading presentations by literacy expert Dr. Richard Allington, whom I spoke with for a recent story about independent reading programs.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston introduced Allington, a professor of literacy studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, as "the Bill Gates of reading."

He added that Allington is one of the few individuals in the country who truly understands the significance of that skill and has mastered the teaching of it -- "and is willing to share it with those of us who are in the trenches."

Allington does not mince words when it comes to his belief in the importance of properly teaching children how to read: allowing them to read what interests them, and giving them access to such material at their reading levels.

His morning session to BCPS administrators and principals did not spare anyone, as he condemned widely used, "one size fits all" reading programs that, he said, essentially do nothing for children. I thought I’d share some of his noteworthy observations here, as well as some references and links to material he cited during his presentation.

Continue reading "National reading expert comes to Baltimore County" »

Posted by Arin Gencer at 4:13 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore County, NCLB, SpecialEd, Teaching, Testing

September 22, 2008

Baltimore's special ed case: Will it ever end?

It's been 24 years since Vaugn G. et al. vs. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al. was filed in federal district court. In my story today, Nancy Grasmick likened it to the Cold War. And some wonder whether the lawsuit -- charging the city school system and the state education department with failing to meet their legal responsibilities to special education students -- will ever end. Around the nation, a few school districts have gotten out from under suits of this kind, but in many places, they linger on indefinitely.

But Dr. Alonso wants this monkey off his back. The case takes up a huge amount of time and costs the school system a fortune. He's only been on the job a little over a year, but he says there have been measurable improvements and the system deserves to be rewarded as a result, particularly when it's doing better in several areas than some other Maryland school districts that aren't the subject of lawsuits. The court monitors seven aspects of special education in the system, which says it is now in full or partial compliance with three of them. If Alonso can get the court to drop a few of the measures it's monitoring, he'll be on his way to making the suit go away.

At the same time, Alonso recognizes the need to demonstrate the system can sustain improvement over time. He says he's committed to being in Baltimore for 10 years, but what if he were to leave? If he stays, how do we know his reforms are going to work? Even with significant progress, the system still has a long way to go, as made painfully evident by the improved graduation rate for special education students in Baltimore: 35.9 percent.

If the document the system filed in court last week is any indication, Alonso is extremely confident of the prospects of success. The system was required to submit a "compliance statement" to the court, evaluating where it stands in the seven measures monitored. The 38-page document it turned in went far beyond those areas, talking about everything from improved SAT scores to the central office reorganization to the increase in collaborative planning among teachers. Much of it is not directly related to special education, though it's widely agreed that general education has to be working well for special ed to function. You can read the court filing here.

On a side note, it's been interesting for me to track the politics surrounding this case in the three-plus years I've been covering it. When I first arrived on the city schools beat in the summer of 2005, the state and the city were sparring for control of the school system amid a gubernatorial election, with special ed as the punching bag. Services to children had broken down as a result of the budget crisis, and Grasmick was asking Judge Marvin Garbis to authorize a state takeover of the whole system. Instead, Garbis allowed Grasmick to send in a team of state managers to oversee special ed. At the time, we characterized it as a partial takeover of all the system departments that are special ed-related, from instruction to human resources. The team never really exercised that kind of authority, and today the four remaining full-time members work side by side with system administrators. Some of the team members have even gone to work for Alonso. But I wouldn't say the tension is gone completely. If you read my story closely, you'll notice that Alonso gives his administration's initiatives credit for the improvement in special ed. Grasmick -- who acknowledges improvement but not as much as the system does -- says the credit belongs largely to the team members.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City, SpecialEd

September 10, 2008

A familiar face in "an impossible job"

Kimberly Lewis, who has monitored special education in Baltimore for the Maryland State Department of Education, is now going to be in charge of it. Last night, she was named the city school system's executive director of special education, replacing the retiring Idalyn Hauss.

Following the board vote to hire Lewis, Dr. Alonso thanked her for accepting what he called "an impossible job" (and what he has said in the past is a more difficult job than his own). The head of special ed in the city has many masters. A federal court's special master oversees a decades-old lawsuit. Nancy Grasmick and her team, co-defendants in the suit, technically still have power from the court to run special ed in the city. They still have special ed managers working out of North Avenue. Lawyers representing the students who sued the system in 1984 are also watching. And of course, the person in the hot seat must report to Alonso, who, as a longtime special education teacher, has an idea or two himself about how to serve students with disabilities. "She knows it is an impossible job," Alonso said of Lewis, "but she thinks it is do-able."

In other personnel moves last night: Christopher Maher, who was running the advocacy group Supporting Public Schools of Choice, was named coordinator of secondary charter schools. The system has a new budget director: Whitney Tantleff, the outgoing finance director of ConAgra Foods. And Reginald Lewis High, the school that made national headlines last academic year for that infamous cell phone video, has a new principal: Sylvia Hall, its former academic dean. 

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:37 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City, SpecialEd

June 12, 2008

Harry Fogle retires; the lawsuit doesn't

It's funny how what seems like big news one day fades from the public consciousness over time. Three summers ago, I wrote several front-page stories about a federal judge's order for the state to send in a team of administrators to manage special ed in Baltimore. The school system made it sound like a partial state takeover was about to happen. Harry Fogle, the head of the team, might as well have been wielding an ax when he arrived from Carroll County, from the way some people characterized the situation.

Then the gubernatorial election passed, and the warfare between MSDE and BCPSS subsided. Dr. Fogle is retiring today, and in the past three years, he never became a household name. His style was friendly and collaborative, and he seemed to enjoy working behind the scenes more than he did being in the spotlight. During his time in Baltimore, services to special education students have improved, and as he leaves, the state is scaling back on its intervention.

But the special education lawsuit continues, and so do the bills associated with it. Even with fewer state managers, the school system next year will pay about $725,000 for the intervention, plus (as I reported yesterday on this blog) at least $425,000 for its own lawyers, plus the salaries of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, plus the cost of the special master's office. Before the lawsuit can end, the system must show improved outcomes for students with disabilities, and those outcomes (i.e., the graduation rate) are still dismal. For Vaughn G., the child for whom the suit was named in 1984, retirement is still a ways off.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:48 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City, SpecialEd

May 28, 2008

Florida boy allegedly voted out of class

Here's a troubling education story that's made national news in the past few days: In Port St. Lucie, Fla., a kindergarten teacher allegedly allowed her students to vote on whether to kick a boy who was misbehaving out of class. The children voted 14-2 to remove their 5-year-old classmate, who is in the process of being diagnosed with autism, according to this article in the Sun-Sentinel newspaper. The children were purportedly allowed to say in front of the class what they did not like about the boy. His mother tells the media she's considering legal action.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:28 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Nation, SpecialEd

May 5, 2008

The special-education debate for Towson's crowded schools

Tomorrow night's Baltimore County school board agenda includes a "special order of business," with officials from the Maryland State Department of Education expected to render an "interpretation of special education facilities accommodations."

The issue arises from the ongoing debate over what, if any, role one of the county's schools --- the Ridge Ruxton School on Charles Street --- should play in helping county school officials fix the situation of the area's crowded elementary schools.

My story in yesterday's paper took a look at some of the factors that have fueled this overcrowding situation as well as some of the possible solutions that have been tossed around.

When school officials began last fall looking at ways to ease the crowding at Towson's four neighborhood elementaries --- Rodgers Forge, Stoneleigh, Hampton and Riderwood --- one of the first suggestions involved changes for the kids at Ridge Ruxton School, a standalone special-education facility where about 125 children attend from ages 3 to 21. One suggestion has been to build a 400-seat addition onto Ridge Ruxton to accommodate regular students.

That plan, however, has drawn sharp criticism, especially from some Ridge Ruxton parents, two of whom have filed federal complaints and are considering a lawsuit. They said they believe that their children, who are "medically fragile," will have their educational rights compromised if they are forced to attend school with regular students.

The school board recently postponed a vote on the Ridge Ruxton expansion plan and ordered a feasibility study to look at all its options.

The board appears to be poised to take up the "crowded schools" discussion during tomorrow night's meeting. Under the contracts to be approved is one listed for architectural/engineering services "for the construction of a new elementary school, or addition(s), in the Towson area."


Posted by Gina Davis at 2:19 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County, Parents, SpecialEd

February 20, 2008

Michelle Rhee tackles special education

Within days of each other last summer, the two most troubled school systems in the region -- Baltimore and Washington -- hired dynamic new leaders and charged them with shaking things up. And for both Andres Alonso and Michelle Rhee, one of the biggest problems on an overflowing plate is special education. Both of their school systems are under federal court orders involving their special ed programs.

So I was fascinated by this article in The Post yesterday about a controversial idea that Rhee wants to try in one D.C. elementary school, for possible replication districtwide. A private special education company will be hired to run the school, West Elementary in Northwest Washington. Within each classroom, The Post reports, there will be instruction customized for special education students, regular students and gifted students. Every child will have the equivalent of an IEP, taking the concepts of inclusion and differentiated instruction to a whole new level.

Not surprisingly, the proposal has been greeted with skepticism in D.C., and critics fear it will make special education, which is already enormously expensive, even more costly.

In Baltimore, no major changes in special ed can be made without the court's consent. But in principle, how do you think such a classroom structure would play out? I often hear special educators here complaining about the astronomical amount of paperwork they're responsible for, and I'm guessing that -- regardless of potential merits -- a structure like this would create more.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:52 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City, SpecialEd

November 30, 2007

The special-education debate --- is mainstreaming good or bad for kids?

This recent front-page article from the Wall Street Journal raises some intriguing points in the debate over "mainstreaming" special-education children. It's an understandably emotional, complicated and thorny issue. What are your thoughts? I'd especially love to hear from teachers and parents on this one.

Here's an excerpt (click on the link below for the full article).

Parents of Disabled Students
Push for Separate Classes
November 27, 2007; Page A1

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Last fall, groups who favor placing disabled students in regular classrooms faced opposition from an unlikely quarter: parents like Norette Travis, whose daughter Valerie has autism.

Valerie had already tried the mainstreaming approach that the disability-advocacy groups were supporting. After attending a preschool program for special-needs students, she was assigned to a regular kindergarten class. But there, her mother says, she disrupted class, ran through the hallways and lashed out at others -- at one point giving a teacher a black eye.

"She did not learn anything that year," Ms. Travis recalls. "She regressed."

As policy makers push to include more special-education students into general classrooms, factions are increasingly divided. Advocates for the disabled say special-education students benefit both academically and socially by being taught alongside typical students. Legislators often side with them, arguing that mainstreaming is productive for students and cost-effective for taxpayers.

Some teachers and administrators have been less supportive of the practice, saying that they lack the training and resources to handle significantly disabled children. And more parents are joining the dissenters. People like Ms. Travis believe that mainstreaming can actually hinder the students it is intended to help. Waging a battle to preserve older policies, these parents are demanding segregated teaching environments -- including separate schools.


Continue reading "The special-education debate --- is mainstreaming good or bad for kids?" »

Posted by Gina Davis at 1:00 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Around the Nation, Parents, SpecialEd, Teaching, Trends

November 7, 2007

A mother gets what she wants

Score one for Sheila Slade-Lee, the parent whose relentless activism to get better special education services for her 7-year-old son caught both the attention of the city school board and this blog. She called this week to report that her son, a second-grader at Northwood Elementary, has gotten a one-on-one aide. And, much to her surprise, administrators have agreed to transfer him to a private school for special education students in the coming weeks. "Non-public placement," as it's called, as an incredibly expensive option and therefore one of last resort for school systems, which effectively have to admit that they aren't capable of serving a child and therefore need to foot the bill for private school.

Slade-Lee has spoken passionately about her son's plight at the last two school board meetings. She's hired a lawyer, and she's gotten help from one of the city's loudest special education advocates, James Williams. (She's also been more than a little persistent about contacting me with updates.) Last week, she attended an IEP meeting for her son, her 17th such meeting in two years. While there normally are about five school officials present at an IEP meeting, she said, this time there were around 20. Previously, the officials have resisted when she requested additional services for her son, who has hearing problems, sensory and auitory processing disorders, attention deficit disorder, and possibly dyslexia. This time, "everybody changed their story." When they offered non-public placement, "I was just floored."

"He got what I asked for a year ago," she said. "If he got all this stuff I've been asking for, that means they were wrong, right?"

A victory, yes. Yet she was still in tears. Why? "I'm still not happy about it because it's been such a terrible fight."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:41 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City, Parents, SpecialEd

October 22, 2007

Should special ed students be required to pass the HSAs?

That's the quesion that Liz explores in her story today. How to test special education students has been a dicey subject for years. But previously in Maryland, much of the debate centered around the consequences for a school (i.e. sanctions under No Child Left Behind) if special education students weren't tested or couldn't pass standardized tests. With the advent of high school graduation exams, the students themselves could potentially be denied diplomas if they fail. Some advocates say the tests will ensure that schools give special education students a basic education, while others say they're unfair and can't account for the range of students' disabilities.

What do you think? Should special education students be held to the same standards as their classmates?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:20 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: SpecialEd, Testing

October 11, 2007

The Parents Trapped

The Baltimore Teachers Union protest got most of the attention at this week's city school board meeting. But during the public comment portion of the meeting, two desperate mothers stole some of the thunder.

One was Sheila Slade-Lee, whose 7-year-old son is in second grade at Northwood Elementary. He has hearing problems, sensory and auitory processing disorders, attention deficit disorder, and possibly dyslexia, though she hasn't been able to get the school system to test him for that. In two years at the school, she's called 16 IEP meetings, and the boy still isn't getting the special education services he needs. She said staff at the school have told her that he's getting more services than his classmates with disabilities. "These are the kids where the parents don't fight for the children," she said.

And special education is only one of the problems. In two years, she said, her son has never brought home a piece of artwork that he made. The cafeteria, she contended, "is pure chaos." Paint is peeling off the new doors at the school, and it's falling off the ceiling. There aren't enough books for children to bring home.

Slade-Lee works as a nurse at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center, the correctional facility on Madison Street. She said she asks the young inmates she meets there, "'Why are you here? What started you on the path to this destruction?' Guess what it was? School. They couldn't read. They couldn't write. They couldn't get a job." 

The other parent was Blondelia Caldwell, past chair of the city's Special Education Advisory Committee. In Baltimore education circles, she is known for her activism. Until this week, her grandson was enrolled in eighth grade at George Kelson Elementary/Middle, where she ran a support group for other grandparents.

Two weeks ago, much of the public comment at the board meeting centered around praise for Kelson, as parents and staff turned out to praise the school's partnership with the Enterprise Foundation. This week, Caldwell was there to tell a different story. On Sept. 27, Caldwell said, she was at the school when some bigger kids tried to attack her grandson. She got in the middle of the fight, and, she said, one of the boys accused her of threatening to stab him with a pencil. She was arrested and charged with second-degree assualt and spent the night in jail. Her pastor accompanied her to the board meeting to urge system officials to resolve the charges against her. Caldwell transferred her grandson to another school this week.

Caldwell's description of the middle school portion of Kelson was similar to Slade-Lee's description of Northwood: "out of control."

"Every year for five years, it's been a new principal," she said when I talked to her Wednesday. "They can't handle the school." Of the self-contained special education class where her grandson was enrolled, she said: "Those kids run the hall every day. They should be in the classroom with instruction going on. There's nothing."

School board Chairman Brian Morris assigned staff to follow up with both the women.

UPDATE: Slade-Lee met with a system administrator on Wednesday who promised to get her son the help he needs.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:01 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City, Parents, SpecialEd

September 17, 2007

All eyes on ADHD

On Tuesday, NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness is sponsoring an evening with Dr. Kevin Harrison, a Howard County Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. Harrison will discuss Pediatric Psychopharmacology.

The 90-minute presentation, which begins at 7:30 p.m., will be held at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, at 10431 Twin Rivers Road, in Columbia.

For further information call: 410-772-9300.

Did you know that Wednesday is ADHD Awareness Day?

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder – formerly known as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) – is an illness that characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, according to NAMI. ADHD affects an estimated two million American children, according to NAMI.

Does your child have ADHD? Are there any resources that you can recommend to other parents faced with this issue? How hard is it to diagnose ADHD?

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 11:43 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: SpecialEd

September 14, 2007

A mother's angst

Kim Solomon, a Baltimore County second-grade teacher and Brandon Solomon's mom, emailed me recently to tell me about the trouble she has experienced trying to get Brandon the special-education services he needs.

After months of trying to get appropriate services for Brandon --- who is now a 7th grader and who has a rare genetic disorder that has rendered him clinically blind --- Kim says that school officials suggested she take Brandon somewhere else to be educated. Frustrated and not wanting to lose any more time in Brandon's education, she has enrolled him at the Maryland School for the Blind, at the expense of the Baltimore County school system.

Brandon has a disorder --- methylmalonic acidemia, or cobalamin C-defect --- that makes it impossible for his body to process and metabolize proteins. Though the disorder is incurable, it is treatable and manageable. Kim also says that while Brandon is developmentally delayed, he is not severely mentally retarded. She said his reading and math skills are roughly that of a 4th grader --- in part, she says, because of months of attending Parkville Middle School without the large-print books and similar accommodations that he needed to compensate for his low vision.

Kim says that as a teacher, she knows the legal --- and moral --- obligation that teachers have to educate ALL students, not just those who are easier to teach than others.

Kim and I spoke recently about her struggle. She has sought help from the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, which she said has told her she has a solid case against the school system, but they can only help her if she chooses to send Brandon back to a public school --- something she says she can't bring herself to do just now.

Read on to find out why Kim says she had no choice but to remove Brandon from the public school system ...

Continue reading "A mother's angst" »

Posted by Gina Davis at 11:45 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore County, SpecialEd

September 12, 2007

Are private schools failing special needs students?

 This study says so.
 The study also finds that 43 percent of private schools have students receiving special-education services available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); and 44 percent use one of many programs outlined in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA. The study basically shows that private schools are not utilizing funds for special education students.

Are you the parent of a special needs student who has had success in private schools, or have you experienced failures?

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 7:35 AM | | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (1)
Categories: SpecialEd
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