The U.S. Department of Education has approved the D.C. school system's new plan to reform its troubled special education program and has released nearly $11 million in federal funds, including money withheld last year, to help with that effort.

School officials hailed the approval of the funds yesterday as a significant victory for their reform plans, which have been designed to mainstream--not isolate--children with disabilities and to comply with federal regulations. But the federal government's vote of confidence wasn't shared by many parents and special education activists, who complained that they have seen little, if any, improvement in services.

The city's special education program has been plagued for years with delays in assessing children, poor data collection and problems in transporting students to and from school. The program, which serves 1 in 10 students, last year accounted for one-third of the school system's $580 million budget.

Education Department officials said they were impressed with the school system's latest reform plan and with new special education director Anne Gay.

"I find them to be committed, willing to learn and absolutely determined that things are not going to be same old, same old," said Deb Morrow of the department's special education office, who helped Gay's team with the plan.

The $11 million in federal funds was given to the District to help officials comply with the U.S. Individual With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires school systems to provide all necessary educational services to children with mental, physical or emotional disabilities. Officials said the money will be used to train school staff and administrators in integrating special education students into regular classes and to provide more timely evaluations and reevaluation of students.

The money includes $4.5 million in IDEA funds withheld last year--and set to expire yesterday--because the District's special education plan was deemed inadequate. The department made the school system sign an agreement last year to improve the program, though D.C. officials have failed to meet any of the agreement's improvement deadlines.

The continued performance failures have prompted many activists to question whether School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and Gay really can fix the program. School officials, for example, promised over the summer to clear by Sept. 1 a backlog of hundreds of requests for hearings by children who did not receive special education services. Gay said yesterday that the deadline has not been met because there were "many, many, many more" requests than expected.

Transportation problems also continue. Many children are not picked up in the morning--and some are returned to the wrong destination at night. Last Thursday, Darnella Perritt's 7-year-old daughter was dropped off several blocks from her after-care program and was missing for three hours. "It doesn't give me much confidence in the school system," Perritt said. A dispatcher was fired over the incident.

Gay said the school system is "still working [transportation] out with the new contractor. . . . I'm not satisfied at all with the way it's going. Frankly, I'm quite frustrated."

Others complain it is harder than ever to contact special education officials.

"I have found the most unresponsive system in the last two months," said Beth Ann West, director of Advocates for Justice in Education, which is based in Southeast Washington. "You leave message and message after message for people, and nobody gets back to you."