Parents Oppose Special-Ed 'Inclusion'

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006

D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey plans to return about 2,000 disabled students in private schools to the public system and close four special-education centers, moves aimed at saving money by integrating the children into the general education population.

His proposal, released last week and already drawing fire, is included in a $2.3 billion, 15-year master facilities plan to upgrade the system. The master plan calls for renovating 121 schools and closing 19.

To save money, Janey wants to pursue a policy of "inclusion" by shifting thousands of disabled students from private schools and system-run special-education centers into general education schools. The students are now in about 100 private schools and four special-education centers -- Hamilton, Mamie D. Lee and Taft in Northeast Washington and Sharpe in Northwest.

Special education historically has been a huge financial drain on the school system, largely because the city schools lack specialized staff and programs to meet the needs of disabled students. Many parents force school officials, through legal action, to send the children to private schools at city expense. Last year, the system spent $118 million on special-education tuition, an amount that had increased 65 percent since 2000.

As part of the proposal to upgrade aging buildings, the system would make all schools compliant with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, installing such features as wheelchair ramps and elevators. Officials said they would construct classrooms outfitted with equipment to accommodate students with a range of physical and mental problems and hire more staff, such as therapists and classroom aides.

They would put severely disabled students into separate classrooms and integrate non-disabled students into regular classes in the general education schools.

But the proposals are sparking anger among parents of special-education students, many of whom assert that the general education schools can't meet the needs of their children. They argue that with only 28 of 146 schools having met academic benchmarks, the school system has a hard enough time providing for general education students.

"I don't think they should close Hamilton," Linnette Henry said. Her grandson, who has attention deficit disorder, attends third grade there. "I prefer him to be in a special-education school, where classes are small and he gets the individual attention he needs," she added. "He was in general public, and he didn't do well at all."

Janey's master education plan calls for the system to establish special-education programs for specific disabilities throughout the city. For instance, emotionally disturbed students would be assigned to a set of schools, including Davis Elementary in Southeast, McFarland Middle School in Northwest and Anacostia Senior High in Southeast.

Between tomorrow and Sept. 28, parents at Hamilton and the other 18 schools targeted for closure will have an opportunity to comment on the master plan at public hearings to be held across the city. The Board of Education plans to vote on the proposal by December.

"Educationally, it restores to some of our young people the notion that they can learn; they are only special in the way they learn. It shows they can learn and compete with the best of our students," school board Vice President Carolyn N. Graham said.

"It reduces our transportation costs and our tuition costs. Those resources come back into the classroom," she added. "It benefits the entire system."

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