One of the more interesting and important articles in the Gazette this week is about the proposal to shut several learning centers which serve Montgomery County students with special needs. The centers would be closed under the current rubric of promoting "inclusion" which sounds like a repackaging of what used to be called "mainstreaming". However, I cannot help but wonder if advocates for the centers, including District 18's Aaron Kaufmann, would be correct to suspect that this may simply be an effort to dress up a budget cut:
. . . Kaufman is a 19-year-old freshman in the prestigious Montgomery Scholars program at Montgomery College in Rockville. He graduated from Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda in June with a 3.98 grade point average.However, Superintendent Weast argues that the learning centers just don't work and that shifting students are resources to the schools will improve performance:
He credits his success to WJ’s secondary learning center, a program that gives extra attention to special needs students so they can master the general education curriculum.
That’s why Kaufman and special education advocates are concerned by the $1.98 billion operating budget proposed last week by schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. Weast recommends that the learning centers be phased out.
The decision is part of a move toward ‘‘inclusion” — putting more special education students in regular classrooms.
It is an idea that Kaufman said is ‘‘nice in theory,” but does not work for every student.
Lyda Astrove, a special education advocate from Rockville whose son graduated with Kaufman, agrees.
‘‘The secondary learning center model provides special education students who need that level of service with the opportunity for smaller class sizes, individualized instruction, case management, transition planning, coordination of accommodations across classes and more,” Astrove wrote in a Dec. 11 e-mail to school and county officials. ‘‘Many students who have graduated from Walter Johnson and benefited from the learning center program have gone on to college.
‘‘It would be a terrible, terrible shame for Montgomery County to lose this program countywide,” she wrote.
The state’s goal is to have 80 percent of students with disabilities in general education classes — about 10 percent more than the county school system provides for its 17,000 special education students.
Weast’s proposal calls for learning centers at eight secondary schools, which serve about 650 students, to be phased out.
No more new special education students will be enrolled in the learning centers, which will close when the last students graduate.
The phase-out will free up about $2 million that will be used to expand a way of assigning teachers based on how many hours of attention the students need. Traditionally, the county has assigned teachers based on how many students they had.
Twenty-one of the county’s 38 middle schools did not meet progress goals on the Maryland School Assessment tests in math and reading last year. Of those, 18 attributed missing their targets to the poor performance by special education students.
‘‘We’ve done the learning centers and tried to do them well for a number of years,” Weast said last week. ‘‘While they’ve felt good, they haven’t been as academically supportive of students for the next level.”
Students who are bused to learning centers would benefit emotionally and academically from returning to their home schools, he said. ‘‘What the data says is they will do better if they are back home and have inclusion and have that support system,” Weast said.
He cited a 32-point increase in sixth-grade math performance on the Maryland School Assessment among Silver Spring International Middle School special-needs students.
Silver Spring International and Forest Oak Middle School in Gaithersburg are piloting the hours-based approach for the first time this year.
Silver Spring International used a similar approach last year by concentrating special education teachers in reading and math classes, an effort that officials credit for the gains on the MSA.
The pilot program doubled the number of teachers and aides to seven each and required training for both special education and general education teachers throughout the year, said Vicky Parcan, principal at Silver Spring International. ‘‘It allows us to have a full inclusion special education model here,” she said. ‘‘We’re able to provide support for special education [students’] needs in mainstream classes.”
Parcan said she is a ‘‘big believer” that a regular classroom is the best place for students to learn.
Still, if inclusion works so much better for all these students, one cannot help but wonder why former students and their parents are fighting so hard against it. One reason may be that students with physical or learning disabilities can get lost in the shuffle in a larger school. Moreover, officials at local high schools may be sorely tempted to focus resources on the top students whose entry into highly selective colleges help make their schools desirable and give them a hot reputation. Advocates for the learning centers seem to agree and make some powerful arguments:
Inclusion can also be complicated because students who can manage some classes well may struggle tremendously in others. I'd be curious to hear from others with more knowledge in this area. Anyone want to guest blog on this issue?
‘‘For some, inclusion works, and that’s great,” said Janis Sartucci, a special education parent and advocate from Potomac. ‘‘But other kids need another self-contained classroom, and that’s what’s being eliminated.”
Weast’s assertion that learning centers are not preparing students for life after high school and that they would have more support in their home schools has left parents and former students puzzled.
Kaufman said almost all of his classmates in the Walter Johnson learning center have gone on to college.
‘‘In the learning center, teachers got to know our families ... they got to know us as a person,” he said. ‘‘With [students with] disabilities, it’s important to make an academic connection as well as an emotional connection.”. . .
Jeanne Taylor, a mother of three special education students from Silver Spring, worries that students who cannot handle the general education setting will be forced into classrooms for students with emotional problems.
‘‘That’s an academic no man’s land” where services often do not follow the students placed there, Taylor said. The emotional disabilities programs are often ‘‘a dumping ground” for children with many different issues, she said.
‘‘Kids who shut down get the short end of the stick,” she said.