Special-Ed Changes To Get Trial Run

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ten Montgomery County middle schools plan a new approach to special education next year that stresses academic progress and includes special-needs students in mainstream classrooms as a means to jump-start lagging performance under the federal No Child Left Behind initiative.

The pilot program, called hours-based staffing, is part of an urgent effort around the region to rethink special education, or risk widespread failure under the federal mandate. Poor performance by special education students is the leading reason Maryland schools have not made "adequate yearly progress" toward proficiency levels all students are supposed to meet by 2014. Special education was the sole factor for half of the 38 Montgomery schools that missed the targets this year.

Special education reform is a key initiative in the $1.98 billion budget plan released yesterday by Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast for the fiscal year that begins July 1. It accounts for $1.4 million of the $132 million in new funds Weast seeks. The budget, which awaits consideration by the County Council, requests a spending increase of 7 percent.

A change in teaching strategies over the past decade has shifted thousands of special education students out of special schools and self-contained classrooms into regular classrooms, a trend known as inclusion. Montgomery schools have lagged behind that trend; five years ago, the county ranked second to last in the state for progress toward the goal of full inclusion, according to Gwendolyn Mason, director of special education in the county. Nearly three-quarters of the 17,000 special education students in Montgomery schools are taught in regular classes today, up from two-thirds five years ago.

With programs such as hours-based staffing, that trend will continue, Mason said. The new federal law, she said, "really requires that our students get access to the curriculum and reach the same standards" as everyone else.

Two middle schools adopted the pilot program this fall. And while students at Silver Spring International and Forest Oak middle schools have not yet been tested on statewide exams, administrators like the program enough to expand it to 10 more sites.

Under current practice, most schools assign special education teachers and aides according to a strict formula: one of each for every 14 special education students. Under the hours-based approach, teachers and aides are assigned according to the individualized education plan, a document that follows every special education student through his or her academic career. Each plan specifies how many hours of special education that student should receive. Schools using the new model are assigned teachers and aides based on the combined instructional hours their students require.

Silver Spring International Middle School now has seven teachers and eight aides, twice as many as last year.

Teachers and aides at the pilot sites are expected to develop academic specialties and become the second teacher in a classroom.

Under the old, 14-to-1 staffing formula, special educators might spend class time "walking around, helping a kid here and a kid there," said Vicky Parcan, principal of Silver Spring International Middle. "Now, they are math teachers and reading teachers."

Some special education parents have signaled their displeasure that Weast intends to phase out a series of special learning centers, which offer mostly self-contained lessons at five middle schools and three high schools. The $3.4 million price tag for the pilot includes $2 million taken from other programs, including the centers.

Janis Sartucci, a parent activist in the special-needs community, said the new program effectively shifts money from one group of students to another. "It's a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul," she said.

Weast said school officials "have done the learning centers and tried to do them well for a number of years." But among special education students in Montgomery County, the share who are considered proficient in eighth-grade reading has declined in the past three years from 35 percent to 34 percent, as measured on the Maryland School Assessment. In contrast, reading proficiency for all eighth-graders has increased from 76 percent to 79 percent in that time.

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