Weast Plans to Delay Closure Of Special Education Centers

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007

Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said yesterday that he would postpone the closure of eight secondary learning centers for special education students after weeks of mounting pressure from parents.

About 100 parents picketed last week outside a hearing on the school system's proposed $1.98 billion budget for the next fiscal year, when the phase-out of the special-ed centers was to begin. In a release yesterday afternoon, Weast acknowledged that "we have heard very clearly" from parents who oppose his plan.

Six hundred students with substantial special needs attend mainly small, self-contained classes in five middle schools and three high schools in the county. Scores of parents with children at the centers say such a setting is the only one that works. But Weast and his special-ed staff say the program has not yielded academic results.

"No matter how you slice the data at the middle or high school level, performance of students in learning centers lags far behind their special education peers who are not in learning centers," Weast said in a statement. He also cited evidence that black students are overrepresented at the centers, which has put the school system under state monitoring. Some parents have lobbied the school board to proceed with the closings.

Weast has said he wants to gradually raise the share of special-ed students who receive more rigorous academic instruction in regular classrooms, in keeping with a nationwide trend toward "inclusion" of the special-needs population.

Many parents of students at the centers said they have tried inclusion and found it does not work for their children.

"We kind of say we've been there, done that," said Tom Jones, a Potomac parent whose 13-year-old daughter studied in various classroom settings before entering a learning center in fourth grade. She is now in the seventh grade at Tilden Middle School in Rockville.

Under Weast's original plan, students at the centers would have been returned to their neighborhood schools during the next three years, with some moving this fall. Under the revised plan, which awaits Board of Education consideration, all students at the centers would remain in self-contained classes through graduation.

"Selfishly, it's really good for our daughter and for others like her who are already in the learning centers," Jones said.

But he and other parents said they would prefer that the centers remain open indefinitely.

"There are always kids who are going to need the small, self-contained classes to be successful," said Lyda Astrove, mother of a 2006 graduate of a learning center at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. She and her husband have served as unofficial leaders of the nearly month-long protest against their closure.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company