Age-Old Problem, Perpetually Absent Solution: Fitting Special Education to Students' Needs

By Jay Mathews
Monday, August 17, 2009

Miguel Landeros is a lanky, well-spoken 12-year-old about to begin seventh grade in Stafford County. He is severely learning disabled, with reading, writing and math skill levels at least two years below his peers, and needs special teaching, according to a licensed clinical psychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and other specialists.

Last February, Stafford officials refused to accept that evaluation and left him in regular classes. He performed poorly, failing all core subjects. Recently, they promised to give him more specialized services, but not the ones the experts who examined him say he needs.

I admit that education writers in general, and I in particular, write very little about learning disabilities and the many failures of federally mandated public school programs to help students who have them. I often say the cases are so complicated I have difficulty translating them into everyday language, and even then readers struggle to understand.

But that is not the whole truth. I also avoid special education stories because they all seem the same, one tale after another of frustrated parents and ill-equipped educators trying but failing to find common ground, calling in lawyers while the children sit in class, bored and confused.

That is not a good reason for ignoring what is probably the most aggravating part of our public school system, at least for the millions of parents who have to deal with it. Many prefer to fight these battles in private. But occasionally, someone like Kelli Castellino, Miguel's mother, shames me by e-mailing a thick file of her correspondence and asking me to tell the story. I will give it a try, without much hope anything will come of it.

Castellino says Miguel attended first through fifth grades at two Howard County elementary schools, Bryant Woods and Phelps Luck. He struggled to learn to read, she says, but the schools did not test him for learning disabilities until she made a formal request in fifth grade. She was told he did not qualify for an Individualized Education Plan, which under one federal law would require special teaching to address his disabilities. He received the lesser option, called a 504 plan, which under another federal law guarantees him special accommodations in a regular classroom setting, such as more time to complete tests.

Castellino, like other parents of children with learning disabilities, had fallen into a jabberwocky world of legal, educational and psychological jargon that makes money for lawyers but leaves parents with headaches and empty bank accounts. Different evaluators might have different views of a child's needs. The laws are vague, although a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision gave parents more sway in such cases. School district evaluators -- good people placed in impossible situations -- might choose the option that costs the least money in hopes that will be enough. They know their budgets may not support much else.

When Castellino moved to Stafford last year and enrolled Miguel at Shirley C. Heim Middle School, she told school administrators that she thought Howard County had overlooked severe problems (a Howard spokeswoman said "not every child with a disability qualifies for an IEP") and asked that Miguel be tested again. School officials told her that because the Howard tests had been so recent, they wanted to wait and see.

In November, Castellino had Kennedy Krieger evaluate Miguel. That report identified these disabilities, with numbers referring to entries in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: "Reading Disorder (315.00); Mathematics Disorder (315.1) and Disorder of Written Expression, 315.2 (Specific Learning Disability); Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder-Combined Type, by history, (Other Health Impaired)." Still, the school kept Miguel in regular classes the rest of the school year. Stafford agreed recently to offer him special services, but in a class with mentally disabled or emotionally disturbed children, not the placement his private evaluators recommended.

Castellino, an office manager, says her insurance has covered the nearly $10,000 spent on neuropsychological, speech and language, occupational therapy, hearing, vision and assistive technology tests by seven different evaluators, including the $2,000 Kennedy Krieger bill. But she anticipates tapping her own funds for future legal and private school expenses. "I am selling my car and will be riding my bike to work, selling anything I can in my house to come up with the money to place my child" where he should be, she says.

I asked Stafford for a response. A spokeswoman said the school system provides "an outstanding education for all of our special-needs students," but she would not comment on any individual student "even if the parent signs a waiver of privacy rights."

Why do you suppose that is? Castellino is following the usual course, making plans to seek a court order for a better placement in a private school. The school district has lawyers, too. They do not want their spokeswoman to say anything that might weaken their case.

Here we go again. Is there an alternative, some innovative way to help kids like Miguel? Special education vouchers? Charter schools for the learning disabled? The old way is rutted, bumpy and slow. It is not taking us very far. We need something new.


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