Parents Protest Plan to Close Special Education Centers

The proposed budget of School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast includes money to expand mainstream classroom education.
The proposed budget of School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast includes money to expand mainstream classroom education. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

A plan to phase out Montgomery County's secondary learning centers, programs in eight middle and high schools that teach special education students in separate classes, is meeting with determined resistance from parents.

County school officials say their goal is to move hundreds of moderately disabled special education students closer to the academically rigorous classrooms that serve other students, a concept known as inclusion and embraced in schools across the country. Montgomery schools have been comparatively slow to meet federal standards for exposing special education students to mainstream education.

Parents loyal to the centers say they mistrust the school system's motives. They say they believe the centers are being closed to save money. They also accuse education leaders of purposefully announcing the closure around the holidays, when fewer parents were around to complain.

"I think this is a budget issue. This isn't about doing what's best for the special education students," said Jim Link, whose daughter, Katrina, attends classes in a learning center at Tilden Middle School in Rockville.

Seventy parents showed up Sunday at Saint Luke Lutheran Church in Silver Spring for a meeting to discuss the planned closure. A large turnout was expected Wednesday night at a planned protest outside a scheduled school budget hearing in downtown Rockville.

School officials say they plan to phase out the learning centers between this fall and spring 2010. School system data indicate that 398 students will be displaced from the centers, which operate at Tilden, Montgomery Village, Lee, King and White Oak middle schools and at Kennedy, Walter Johnson and Watkins Mill high schools.

The centers are being closed as part of a movement toward dispensing more special education in regular classrooms, said Carey Wright, the associate superintendent of Montgomery schools who oversees special education and student services.

Federal special education law requires that students be educated in the least restrictive environment, a shift away from the previous reliance on separate classes. As of October 2005, 74 percent of Montgomery students with disabilities were educated alongside their non-disabled peers for 80 percent or more of the school day, short of the state target of 80 percent of students.

"What we do feel very strongly about," Wright said, "is that they need access to rigorous curriculum."

School officials cite a racial imbalance in the centers as further reason for shutting them down. The student population in the middle school centers is 40 percent black; at the high school centers, it is 43 percent black. The overall secondary school population, in contrast, is about 23 percent black.

Hispanics are also overrepresented in the centers, which collectively draw from the entire county. The Montgomery school system is under state monitoring for the disproportionate share of minorities in self-contained special education classes, which is deemed a form of segregation.

Parents who oppose closing the centers say the school system is abandoning a program that, whatever its shortcomings, has helped their children more than any other academic setting.

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