D.C. school officials are starting programs and shifting responsibility for special education to individual schools as part of what they say is a fresh approach designed to emphasize mainstreaming, not isolating, children with disabilities.

Under a new leadership team headed by Ann Gay, the highly regarded former principal of Janney Elementary School in Northwest Washington, an aggressive plan has been developed to bring the District's special education operations into compliance with federal law. Training for teachers and principals also has been beefed up, and special education teachers are being lured to the school system with $3,000 bonuses.

"We are on the right track," said Gay, who ran a successful program to mainstream Janney's students before taking over in June as head of special education in the city's public schools.

Gay cautioned, however, that improving a program that has failed thousands of children for years will take time. "We didn't get here in two months," she said. "We're not going to fix it in two months."

Many parents and education activists expressed doubts that all the reforms can be achieved. And they warned that some of the changes may make matters worse.

Of particular concern for some parents is a new transportation plan that will require that special-ed children be picked up and dropped off at the same address. In the past, many children had different morning and afternoon designations, depending on child-care needs. Some, for example, were picked up at home but dropped off at a grandparent's home, or at a day-care program.

But last week, Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks told a trustees panel that advises the D.C. financial control board on education that such a policy was a costly, bus-routing nightmare. Under the new plan, if no parent or guardian is on hand when the children are dropped off after school, they will be taken to a newly created center. If this happens three times, she said, D.C. child welfare officials will be notified.

An angry Lillie Hammond, whose 13-year-old daughter is a special education student, said the change in transportation services discriminates against working parents.

"Many parents work. Some attend school. Some even attend school and work. They make different child-care arrangements," Hammond said. "I want to know why they are doing this to us less than two weeks before the opening of school."

Beth Goodman, an attorney who is litigating a class-action suit against the District's transportation services for special-ed students, called the new policy "horrible" and said she may sue to get it changed.

Skepticism about D.C. schools abounds, activists say, in part because a succession of superintendents hasn't delivered on promised improvements. The special education program, which serves one in 10 children in the 72,000-student system, has long failed thousands of children with emotional, physical or learning disabilities. Many students wind up at schools outside the District because the city does not have enough programs and services to help them--a situation that has contributed to special education eating up some 30 percent of the system's annual budget.

The U.S. Department of Education forced the school system to sign a three-year compliance agreement last year; the city has yet to meet a single goal. The next report, due in October, will help gauge the effectiveness of some reforms.

"I don't want to hear how committed they are," said Mary Levy, counsel for the advocacy group Parents United. "I just want them to do it."

The disconnect between the school system's reform promises and reaction among a broad spectrum of education advocates underscores the problems Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, in the job for 15 months, faces as she moves into her second year of trying to overhaul one of the nation's lowest-performing school districts.

Ackerman recently has taken steps to try to revamp the special education program, including hiring Gay and tackling chronic problems in the school system's transportation department, which is used nearly exclusively to bus several thousand special education students to and from schools across the Washington region.

She replaced her transportation director this summer with Al Winder, who has 20 years of experience in the field. She also helped push through a change in the contractor that provides bus drivers and attendants.

Ackerman's new action plan calls for timely evaluations and reevaluations of students who request special education services. School officials say a backlog of hundreds of hearing requests will be eliminated by Sept. 1, a deadline activists doubt can be met. The plan also promises to fully implement decisions made in hearings and settlement agreements--another area where there is a backlog hundreds long.

"I do not believe that the school system is being honest or realistic about our special education problems," said D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6).

Ackerman and Gay say that the new emphasis, whenever possible, will be on integrating special education students into regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools and providing those schools with more resources to do the job.

This fall, about 20 learning disabled students will be mainstreamed at Hardy Middle School. New mainstreaming and behavior management models also will be implemented at two other middle schools and 10 elementary schools. Also, a new "transition school" will open at the empty Taft Junior High School in Northeast Washington to provide therapeutic services with comprehensive general education for students with intensive social and emotional needs.

In addition, more psychologists, social workers, speech therapists, occupational and physical therapists and adaptive physical education teachers, as well as special education teachers, will be based at neighborhood schools--although Gay said she is not sure yet how many.

Principals will now evaluate these specialists, and some are quietly grumbling about the extra workload.

It is unclear at this point whether the school system will have enough money to fully implement the new plan. Ackerman requested that $101 million be earmarked to pay for tuition and transportation for special education students who attend private and public schools outside the District. But so far, city officials have only committed $75 million.

"I am skeptical that the general plan is realistic," said parent activist Theresa Bollech. "I have been asking the school system to provide parents and guardians a list of special education services and programs at each of the 146 schools for this coming school year, and so far they haven't produced one. Something like that is basic."

Parents and others also complain that Ackerman has harmed children by promoting a cap on fees for lawyers who represent students and their families in trying to secure special-ed services from the District. Congress last year approved the cap requested by Ackerman, who argued that millions of dollars were spent on legal fees that could be used to improve special education. Now Congress is considering a request by Ackerman and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to extend the cap another year.

Ackerman also has asked the control board to approve a cap on fees for experts and consultants hired by attorneys working on special-ed cases.

But education advocates say the system has been so neglectful that attorneys are needed to protect students. And capping attorney and consultant fees, they argue, limits legal representation for poor families--and the very children Ackerman says she is committed to helping.

"We are absolutely creating a situation where the most needy children from the poorest families will fall through the cracks again," Ambrose said.