Montgomery County special-needs students build camaraderie and confidence

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that five years ago about a quarter of special-education students in Montgomery County schools were in learning centers, which offer small, self-contained classes tailored to their needs. County data show that about 7 percent of such students were in learning centers at the time. The article said that learning centers are being phased out; that is true for secondary grades but not elementary grades. It also incorrectly said that 2 percent of special-education students remain in programs that group them only with others with special needs; in fact, the share is significantly higher. And the article drew a mistaken comparison of special-needs programs and enrollment, leading to the inaccurate implication that the overall share of special-education students outside regular classes has fallen over five years from about 25 percent to 2 percent. State data show that the share of Montgomery students with disabilities ages 6 to 21 who are in regular classes less than 40 percent of the day — a government benchmark — fell from 21 percent in the 2005-2006 school year to 12 percent in the year that just ended. This version is corrected.

Mohammed “Kumail” Abbas tossed a small yellow ball onto the lawn on an eye-squintingly bright afternoon outside James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County . He and three other students with Down syndrome were playing bocce ball, in a lesson that offered a glimpse at a traditional form of special education that is becoming less common across the country.

“What’s the name of the ball, again?” asked teacher Heather Cory.

“A pa-, pa-, pallino,’’ Kumail said, drawing a rousing “Good job!” from his teacher. When his teammate threw a larger red ball and his opponent threw a larger blue ball, Cory led a discussion on how the relationships among the balls determined a winner.

“Which one is closer to the pallino?” she asked.

In bocce, as in special education, the discussion is often about relationships.

Five years ago, Montgomery schools began phasing out “learning centers” — which offered small, self-contained classes with a pace tailored to special-needs students — for secondary grades. The new policy followed a national trend of mixing as many of those students as possible into regular classes and adding specialists to the classrooms to keep students with disabilities on track. Before the shift, 7 percent of special education students in Maryland’s largest school system were in learning centers.

Now, just 322 students remain in programs that group them only with others who have special needs. They are the outliers in an increasingly integrated education system, which makes it all the more important for teachers such as Cory to ensure that Kumail and his classmates feel empowered as individuals without feeling isolated.

“In life-skills classes, the greatest gift we can give is high self-esteem,” said George Giuliani, executive director of the National Association of Special Education Teachers. “For those who have skills but are not going off to college, we need to teach them to function independently in the world and feel like they are a part of the world.”

In this class, the students had each other. When they all agreed that the blue ball was nearer to the pallino than the red ball, Marvin Hart IV pumped his fist and called out “Yes!”

His best friend, Brandon Davis, hugged him in celebration.

Kumail lost the round. But he got so wrapped up in the excitement that he hugged them, too.

Their home base in the school year that just ended was a classroom at Blake High in Silver Spring, near the gymnasium and the dance studio. The room was filled with colorful maps of the world and the closets were stuffed with cereal, canned foods and crackers.

Kumail, 17, is shaggy-haired and quick to hug. Marvin, 19, loves to dance. Brandon, 19, always wants to help people, which explains why he went inside that spring day to beckon another student to join in bocce ball.

“Come outside with us,” he said. His voice was deep and quick, almost unintelligible.

“When you speak, you have to slow down,” his teacher told him.

Brandon followed the instructions and repeated the message. His classmate, a non-verbal student in a wheelchair, smiled and rolled himself out.

In every corner of the classroom, there was a lesson. The stocked shelves were for practice visits to the grocery store. The map? To imagine flying off to Europe, and to rehearse how to handle a ticket at the airport.

Cory taught them how to use the bus by themselves and accompanied them to retirement homes. There, they practiced folding sheets and sweeping, helping those who have trouble helping themselves.

In a school of nearly 2,000 students, there were about five in Cory’s class. Their school day was spent mostly in her classroom, except for a music class. They walked through the halls, considerably shorter than most of their peers. Generally, they were treated well. Sometimes they drew stares.

Occasionally when Cory walked her class through the halls, she would hear a funky beat coming from the dance studio. Marvin would start to shimmy and pop-and-lock, to the amusement of dance students.

“So I’ll start dancing with him,” Cory said. “We need to make sure that they are okay with who they are and that people support them.”

On this day, Cory asked the class what they thought of the bocce lesson.

“It’s boring,” Kumail said.

“Last time, you said you loved it,” Cory said.

“It’s at school, though,” Kumail said. “School is boring.”

“I’m just kidding!” he added, laughing. “But I like softball better.”

Kumail spent the spring as a catcher on Blake’s nascent coed softball team, created after a state law mandated schools do more to keep special-needs kids physically active.

Last year, teacher Derek Ritzenberg started the team with the vision of mixing special-needs and general-education students who had never represented the school in a sport before. So far, though, the team has been made up entirely of special-needs students. Among them were students in Cory’s life-skills class.

“Those kids, they are having fun out there,” Ritzenberg said. “And they get to put on a Blake uniform and represent their school, just like any other athlete. For once, they feel like they are contributing, like they are a part of the school.”

Out of five games in the spring season, the team won one. Not that it mattered; there were small victories. For example, one student who had trouble focusing reminded the team to stay on task. Another student who loved softball recalled that when she played in elementary school only one girl was nice to her; this time, she found that an entire community cheered her on.

Some of the biggest changes, though, were seen in the life-skills students.

“It’s really just him being more social,” said Antoinette Davis, Brandon’s mom. “I really feel like the team is shaping him to be more confident in all levels of life. He’s learning how to work and get better.”

Before one practice, Marvin and Brandon walked through the locker room with their arms around each other. The other athletes nodded their heads to acknowledge them as they walked by.

Then they crossed through the room to the outdoor basketball court where they practice, past three girls getting ready for track.

“Hey ladies,” Marvin said, winking at one. “Call me.”

The girls started to giggle.

“That’s my boy, right there!” Brandon muttered. “Respect!”

Michael Leonard, who has autism and is in general education classes, met the two outside.

“Let’s practice,” he told them.

As they walked to the court, Brandon asked: “You’re my teammate, right?”

Michael responded: “Absolutely.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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