D.C. public schools will offer classes this summer for severely handicapped children, marking the first time that an extended school year will be considered part of the students' right to a public education.
But the new program already is being criticized by several advocacy groups for the handicapped, which say that the guidelines for the program are too strict and will allow too few students to be served, including some of the most severely handicapped. For a student to qualify, teachers, therapists and special education administrators will have to demonstrate that the children regressed while they were out of school last summer.
School administrators estimate that at least 90 of the 1,200 handicapped students enrolled in the District's eight special-education schools and in the metropolitan area's private schools will be eligible.
Under the guidelines, it must be shown that a child regressed in a learned skill during the last summer vacation, and that it would not be possible for the child to relearn the skill during the first 12 weeks of the regular school year. Skills such as muscular control, toilet use, dressing, self-feeding, communicating and interacting with peers and adults will be taken into consideration in accepting or rejecting students.
Josephine Young, a D.C. school psychologist, said that schools should send "any formal or informal testing from last school year or this school year that will measure the skills being addressed for each child."
Young said teacher observations and any other documentation that will show that a child had a skill, lost it during the summer, and was unable to regain it in 12 weeks should also be sent.
Thomas Wilds, director of St. Johns Development Center, a private school for handicapped students, said 21 autistic children in his program already have been rejected because he could not prove with "tests, charts and graphs" that these children had regressed last summer or that they were unable to relearn the skills.
Wilds said he does not have such documentation and that the children did not regress only because all 21 were enrolled in a summer program last year funded by D.C. schools.
Although this is the first year the District will offer the extended school year, schools have in the past offered several summer programs for as many as 260 handicapped children. But those programs traditionally have been considered enrichment classes and not part of the handicapped students' right to a public education, officials said.
"Those previous summer programs only existed if such a decision was made by an administrator," said school board member Bob Boyd of Ward 6, who chairs the Committee on Specialized Education Programs.
"We needed to bring some order to the chaotic decision-making we had prior to this," he said.
Parents, many of whom said they have been asking for such programs for at least five years, said the schools have only done the bare minimum to comply with the law.
"The law already says that the schools must provide a program that is free and appropriate, and for many of our children that means an all-year program," said Susan Learmonth, mother of a handicapped child.
The guidelines set by the D.C. schools "are too strict and we have no way of providing the documentation they are requiring," said Learmonth, who works at the Kennedy Institute for Handicapped Services.
Gail Hilliard-Nelson, director of the Kennedy Institute, said all 16 students she recommended for the summer program also were rejected because she could not produce the required documentation.
"How could we have known to document this regression if we were only told about the program a few months ago?" asked Hilliard-Nelson. The board approved the program in November, but school officials announced the requirements just last month.
Doris Woodson, assistant superintendent for special education, said that St. Johns only submitted names and did not explain why the children qualified for the program.
"We are not going to just accept names. There has to be some documentation included," she said.