Sometimes the simplest decisions solve the most intractable problems. So Mildred Honablew has learned.
Last year Honablew started working in March to get her 4 1/2-year-old son Joseph placed in a special education program at his neighborhood school. Then she waited all year.
This year she contacted the Logan School during the summer, and Joseph had received an assignment by the middle of September. t
"He has a beautiful program there," a relieved Honablew says. "He seems to have a very capable teacher. In fact, all he can talk about is his teacher. This morning he wasn't quite ready for the bus, and he sat out on the front step and cried. He thought he wasn't going to see Miss Butler."
Providing an encouraging note to parents in an otherwise-bleak school-year opening, the Logan School's Child Study Center has just ended its first two months of full operation. The center, at Third and G streets NE, consolidates all diagnostic and placement facilities for the estimated 7,000 handicapped D.C. students in one convenient location.
Formerly, parents of handicapped students could be sent through three or more referrals in as many locations, and often waited months before their children were placed in special programs.
So far, parents and principles say the center seems to have made marked improvements in the speed with which handicapped students receive special services, many of which were already available.
"I'm so excited about the program," said director Doris Rhodes, formerly a regional pupil personnel director whose office was but one of many pitstops on a pupil's road to special placement.
"We have a good group of professionals who respond professionally and yet empathetically," Rhodes said. "Logan shortens the time. If there's a question (about a placement) all the people are right here, and if the parent has some documentation that the child is in need of special services, we can proceed almost immediately."
In District schools, the term "handicapped" covers a wide range of physical, mental and emotional problems. Rhodes said the most common handicap among District students is mental retardation, followed by learning disabilities.
School officials organized the Child Study Center in response to a bitter, eight-year-old lawsuit brought by parents of handicapped students.
U.S. District Court Judge Joseph C. Waddy, who has since died, held that handicapped D.C. children were entitled to free public education regardless of the severity of their impediments or the cost of the schooling.
Waddy ordered schools to evaluate and place handicapped students within 50 days of discovery. Disputes between school officials and the Department of Human Services over who would pay for compliance with the court order have stretched negotiations over years.
In the past, school officials who detected a learning disability referred the child to one of six regional pupil personnel centers for testing, or retesting if parents had already provided it, then to the Special Education Office for placement. But parents complained of long intervals between testing and placement, disparate treatment by different regional offices and plain bureaucratic indifference.
"One of the complaints was that we had not identified as many handicapped children as we might have," said Rhodes, who added, "There were so many referrals, and many were not handicapped. Psychiatrists worked with people who didn't get referred."
The staff of 46 professionals -- including psychologists, social workers, educational assessors, placement officers and medical personnel -- work together in the sunny, former community school building.
A bus is available to bring parents and children to the center, and parents are encouraged to work closely with staff members to organize children's individual educational plans for the year.
Transportation for all such children attending public schools can be arranged through the center and is also available for private school students when space is available.
Of course, there are complaints. While she is happy with her son's new school, Mildred Honablew still feels her own persistence was an essential factor in the center's prompt response.
"They weren't fully organized," she said. "I was told there wasn't room, that I had to wait for my kid." Joseph Honablew was diagnosed as socially immature, a condition he is expected to outgrow.
"All in all, I'm very satisfied with the way things turned out, but with parents of socially handicapped, if they're not as persistent as I had to be, there's a long road of plowing," Honablew said. But she added, "If you really work with them and let them know that you're -- I won't say 'pushy' -- extra-interested, they'll do it."
Logan staffers spent the summer trying to reduce a 600-case backlog, which they feel they've about handled. They've spent the last few weeks tracing every child who's been placed so far, to ensure that no one "gets lost in the paperwork," said Rhodes.
Rhodes said she hopes to improve her own follow-up techniques before the year is out, and to improve parents' training so they can participate more in planning to meet their children's educational needs. Unlike many of her colleagues in a belt-tightening school year, she is very enthusiastic.
"Even if a parent just walks in -- and they really shouldn't -- we try not to turn anyone away. While the parent is here we try to resolve" the problem.