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In the Mainstream but Isolated

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008

Victoria Miresso cannot button a shirt, match a sock or tell one school bus from another. Yet at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown, she is expected to function much like any other sixth-grader, coping with class changes, algebra quizzes and lunchroom bullies.

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Victoria's parents say she is a victim of inclusion: a trend, in Montgomery County and across the nation, toward shutting down traditional special education classes and placing special-needs students in regular classrooms at neighborhood schools.

"At this point, we're about halfway through the school year, and she hasn't learned anything," said Laura Johnson, her mother. "It's not fair for her to go to school and sit there and be teased because she doesn't understand what they're teaching her."

Montgomery school officials say Victoria is no victim. She is, however, one of the first generation of students who cannot attend secondary learning centers, a network of self-contained classrooms open to special education students at eight middle and high schools in the county since the 1970s. Montgomery school leaders decided in 2006 to phase out the centers, part of an ongoing shift of special-ed students and teachers out of separate classrooms and into the general school population.

It ranks among the most controversial decisions made by Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, who has run the 138,000-student system since 1999. A hundred parents picketed the school board in the dead of winter to protest the closure. They argued that the small, sheltered classes were the only setting that worked for their children. Weast and the school board maintained that students in the centers weren't learning and deserved the same rigorous lessons offered to everyone else.

The conflict illustrates a broader schism within the special education community over inclusion, a national effort to break down the walls that have separated special-needs students from their peers. Some parents want their special-needs children exposed to the brisk academics and complex social tapestry of a suburban neighborhood school. Others, including the Johnsons, do not.

Victoria Miresso has an IQ of 55, according to diagnostic papers her parents keep in a thick file at the family home. She is only partially mainstreamed at Roberto Clemente, taking a mix of mainstream and special-ed classes. Nonetheless, her mother said, she is lost.

"She doesn't understand a word," Laura Johnson said. "She writes on her tests, 'I don't know,' and she has to hand it in."

Students such as Victoria were routinely housed in separate schools until 1975, when the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act mandated that disabled and non-disabled students be taught together "to the maximum extent appropriate." A first wave of inclusion shifted special education classrooms into neighborhood schools. A second wave, starting in the late 1990s, moved many special education students out of those classrooms and into large mainstream classes, along with an army of special education teachers and aides charged with helping them keep up.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 pressed the issue further, requiring school systems to demonstrate that special-ed students attain academic proficiency at the same rate as their peers.

Only 8 percent of learning center students in Montgomery middle schools rated proficient last year on the Maryland School Assessment in reading, and only 4 percent passed the statewide math test. Students with comparable disabilities who attended mainstream classes performed much better. Under No Child Left Behind, all special-needs students tested are expected to pass by 2014.

School system leaders say the transition, grade by grade, away from learning centers has been a resounding success. All sixth-grade teachers and hundreds of aides responsible for serving the students attended mandatory training over the summer. Case managers were assigned to each of the 70 students being mainstreamed, most of whom had attended elementary school learning centers, which are not being closed. Each student has been monitored over the year, and extra staff assigned as needed to help them succeed. A parent survey, given this fall, found just two parents dissatisfied with inclusion, although only 24 families responded.

Ketia Ingram-Adams said her 12-year-old foster daughter has made a smooth transition from an elementary learning center to mainstream classes at Briggs Chaney Middle School in the Spencerville area, where she is getting A's and B's.

Ingram-Adams's daughter had no formal schooling until about age 7. School psychologists concluded she had attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, although her foster mother thinks that the diagnosis might be wrong.

Last year, the learning center setting -- 10 students and two teachers, working at an easy pace -- helped the girl gain years of missed reading and math instruction.

"She would get tips on things that would help her learn more math, do better at her reading, practice her writing, her reading comprehension," the mother said. "And she would sometimes get frustrated. But they taught her how to get back the focus, to 'Slow down, close your eyes, count to 10.' "

This year, she has moved effortlessly into the neighborhood middle school.

"She can read chapter books, she can do addition and subtraction, multiplication and division," Ingram-Adams said. "It's just like they gave her the push she needed in school."

But other parents say inclusion has been a disaster, leaving their children bewildered and friendless. They are particularly resentful at being excluded from the decision-making process that doomed the centers. Resentment lingers, even after Weast altered the plan so that all of the roughly 600 students attending the centers could stay through graduation.

Michelle Ryan of Gaithersburg said she was open to the idea of mainstreaming daughter Allyson, 12, who has autism. She wanted Allyson to earn a diploma.

But Allyson was not ready for Forest Oak Middle School. She had a meltdown in the first week of school, "crying and screaming," her mother said. She found her locker, and her classes, only with help from an attentive aide who followed her around.

Today, Allyson is getting B's and C's. But Ryan suspects teachers might be inflating her daughter's grades to make the transition look like a success. Worse, Allyson has begun to feel inferior to her classmates, "and she never had that problem before," her mother said. Isolated from other special-needs students, she has no friends and eats lunch alone.

"Yes, academically, it might be better for her to be mainstreamed, and that was always my goal for her as a parent," Ryan said. "But she wasn't ready."

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