Because of her severe learning disabilities, Jan Porter was assigned to a special education program in the District of Columbia public school system at the age of 10. But she was also required to spend one day a week in a "regular" classroom at Shepherd Elementary School as part of a program to blend handicapped children into the mainstream of school life.

Jan never understood the math problems the teacher at Shepherd had her regular class do. She could not do the reading with the other fourth graders because she was barely reading on a second-grade level. The other students called her "dumb" and "crazy."

So on Fridays, the day she attended Shepherd, Jan would spend the day coloring. Or she asked her teacher to let her go to the bathroom, and there she would spend the rest of the school day.

Finally, one Friday morning when her mother woke her up to go to Shepherd, Jan became so hysterical that her mother had to call her pediatrician and ask what to do.

It was then that the Porters decided to ask the school system to change Jan's placement so that she would no longer be mixed with students with whom she felt she could not compete.

In doing so, the Porters were starting a 19-month ordeal in which they had to pull their child out of the public schools, hire a lawyer, go through two formal hearings with the school system and one hearing in U.S. District Court -- solely to get their child's placement changed.

Today, the Porters (who have requested that their real name not be used for their daughter's sake) say they have little confidence left in the school system.

"You hear a lot about black parents not caring about the quality of their children's education. Just the other day, I heard [School Superintendent] Vincent Reed say that the parents have got to be more concerned," said Porter, a Metro bus driver from upper Northwest.

"Here we were concerned about our child's well-being, about keeping her from becoming a liability to society, and we had to go through all this."

In the end, it was the Porters, not school officials, who found a program where Jan is now assigned and happy and progressing. U.S. District Court Judge John Garrett Penn, who heard the Porter case, said school system officials, "by their inaction have left a vacuum which fortunately has been filled by the parents."

Special education programs, partly spurred by federal laws and court orders, have developed from an effort to guarantee an education to the nation's handicapped children, as far as possible by "mainstreaming" them -- placing them in regular classrooms.

In 1971, the late U.S. District Judge Joseph C. Waddy ruled that handicapped children had a constitutional right to a public education. Waddy ordered the District government to offer such children appropriate educational opportunities.

Waddy held the District government in contempt of court in 1975 for failing to comply with his original ruling, and he appointed a special master to oversee the city's education program for the handicapped. A final plan to comply with his ruling was approved by the judge in May 1978.

The city has about 1,150 handicapped students enrolled in the school system this year and is spending $1.7 million to educate 172 others in special day and boarding schools outside the city.

Federal laws passed several years ago require that, as far as possible, the nation's 4 to 6 million handicapped children be provided with "free, appropriate" education in the "least restrictive" environment possible.

The laws apply to deaf, blind and retarded children and those with varying degrees of learning or physical disabilities.

The laws have created endless arguments between local school districts and the federal government, between parents and schools and sometimes between teachers and teachers.

Just atempting to define what "handicapped" means, or what "free, appropriate" education or "least restrictive" environment means has proved impossible.

John McMillan, a television repairman from Anacostia, has been fighting since last January to get his 5-year-old son Delbert's specialized placement changed.

McMillan and Porter speak bitterly of the hearing process a parent must go through in order to get their child's placement changed because it makes parents adversaries with the school system -- the very institution with which they share responsibility for educating their child.

"The school system tries to make you feel that if your child isn't making progress, it's your fault," McMillan said. "The individual people you have to deal with try to make you feel like a fool because you're trying to help your child."

McMillan's son, who has a severe spech problem, could barely talk after a year in a special education program at Congress Heights Elementary School. But after just three months in a summer program at Children's Hospital, the boy began speaking in complete sentences for the first time and his speech became sharper.

The McMillans have asked the school system to place their son in the Children's Hospital program full-time. They are still waiting for an answer.

The dissatisfaction of some D.C. parents with the public schools' special education programs is about to come to a head. The 1971 class action suit that led to Waddy's ruling was reopened in November with a new set of allegations by attorneys representing a group of handicapped children.

These new allegations are threefold:

The school system has failed in numerous cases to place students in special ed program within the 50-day limit set by law from the time the parents formally requested that their child be considered for special ed.

Numerous students have been placed in special ed programs that are not appropriate for their needs.

The school system, in violation of the law, has refused to place students in private, residential programs when there is no appropriate public education program for the students. The school system is also required by law to pay for his private residential instruction.

A hearing on the new allegations is scheduled for Jan. 14 and is expected to continue several days.

The new court action would require the school system to take immediate steps to correct these alleged shortcomings.

"Yes, we have been treating these children wrongly," said school board member Alaire Rieffel, who heads the board's subcommittee on special education. "Nothing much has been done of a constructive nature to address these programs with positive solutions."

School officials directly involved in special ed programs say corrective action will not be easy. They maintain the detailed federal guidelines, designed to protect students from being wrongly placed in special ed, require a time-consuming screening process, which is difficult to complete in 50 days.

Board member Calvin Lockridge said it may be necessary for the school system to ask the court to extend the current 50-day limit for making placements. He said many states give their school systems more time that the District has. Lockridge also said the school system may need to look into limiting the amount of money it spends on private residential placements, since some of these placements easily run up to $20,000 a year for one student.

Most of the school agencies involved in assessing and placing special ed students will generally point the finger at other agencies when asked about the problem with delays and apparent inappropriate placements.

Doris Woodson, whose title is "assistant superintendent for special education" and is considered the highest-ranking special ed official in the school system, says she is responsible only for certain programs.

Dr. Saundra Johnson supervises the psychologists and social workers who are supposed to test prospective special ed students and do psychological and family background studies on them to determine whether they indeed need special ed.

Johnson said that understaffing in her department may be contributing to the delays. She said that her 40 psychologists and 40 social workers last year handled 2,000 cases.

Johnson said only 570 of those youngsters were found to be eligible for special ed, which she said may mean that some classroom teachers are referring any student who seems slow or disruptive for special ed placement.

Johnson also said her staff sometimes is forced to delay getting their work done because parents do not appear for required conferences and fail to provide the school officials with information they need.

Whatever the result of the court action, it is uncertain whether it can mend the bitter rift between parents, like Porter and McMillan, and the school system over special education.

In the Porter case, a hearing officer -- the impartial party who rules on parents' requests to have their child's special ed placement changed -- twice ordered the school system to revise the educational plan for Jan so that she could get help for her emotional problems as well as her learning disabilities.

The school system never did this, according to the court record on the case.

When the 1978 school year began and the Porters had heard nothing from the school system about a change in their daughter's program, they decided to enroll her at their own expense in the private Kingsbury School.

There, she is progressing slowly, but surely. She is enthusiastic about school and has made friends for the first time.

In September, the Porters finally got the school system to place Jan at Kingsbury indefinitely. But it took a federal court order.

Their struggle with the school board continues, because the school system doesn't want to reimburse them for the $4,800 annual tuition they had to pay Kingsbury.

"It's such a long, drawn out process, it takes so much out of you," Porter said.