Learning centers’ success stories are reason to preserve program

Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2007

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Five letters

We are truly dismayed by the cavalier attitude shown by the superintendent’s office regarding the proposed closure of Montgomery County Public Schools’ secondary learning centers (‘‘Special-ed advocates floored by phase-out of learning centers,” Dec. 20 article).

We have a child at the learning center at Tilden Middle School, where she has thrived during her three years there. Our daughter’s IEP has deemed since kindergarten that the least restrictive environment in which she can successfully learn is a self-contained classroom. She will no longer have that option in high school if this plan goes through. It is a shameful experiment and at what cost?

This current outrage is reminiscent of the sleight of hand four years ago when the speech and language programs were closed at a number of elementary schools, seemingly in the middle of the night. The news of those closings was a shock to us too.

Thankfully, we received excellent help at the time from the MCPS special education office, and we were able to enroll our child in a contained program where she flourished.

If the superintendent has his way, our daughter will be forced into a full inclusion environment where she will be lost. In a learning center environment our daughter is not afraid to speak up in class, and takes an active role in class discussions. Her reading has improved dramatically. We have noticed at home that she is reading each day, and for the first time is reading for pleasure as well as comprehending the work that which is assigned.

She looks forward to going to school each day and is on the honor roll. However, it has taken a number of years to get her to the point where she is comfortable speaking aloud in class, forming close friendships with her peers and beginning to make strides in her academic performance. A critical reason for that is her need for the security and familiarity of a small and welcoming classroom school. She is successful because there are no cruel surprises in her routine.

We adopted our daughter when she was 6 months old. Her physical development was on target in the early years, but she was behind in other ways. For example, she could not learn colors or numbers. When she began kindergarten in 1998 she was in a general education classroom. Her teacher detected her learning disability, which was exacerbated by the size of the class and our child’s need for personal attention. The teacher even sat her in the front row during reading sessions, touching her foot to make and continue sustained contact.

Intervention was swift, and after a number of evaluations our child was diagnosed with a learning disability. That early experience taught us that no matter what rules, regulations and policies are in place, the success of a special needs child is dependent on one critical factor — who is teaching the student and the size and form of the classroom.

We have a strong commitment to public schools (husband is a retired MCPS teacher) and we want to ensure that our daughter is given the best education possible. The frustrations and the triumphs of a special needs child are not always overt. The day-to-day subtleties that parents can see quickly, must be picked up by the teaching staff as well. It has been clear to her teachers that she is a child who would get lost in a large class setting.

To move our child to a general education environment in high school, when she thrives on the consistency of her environment and stability in her relationships, is terribly disruptive at best, and borders on pure callousness when measured against her personal educational requirement, which includes help for a speech and hearing disability. It is our understanding that the special needs program has that designation for a reason. The children who are part of it need individual attention in order to achieve their maximum potential.

It is imperative that children start from a level playing field if we want to realize the dream of a society that is good for all of us, not just some. This plays out in schools across the country, across the state and, of course, in Montgomery County.

We strongly and unequivocally urge the Montgomery County Public School system to think long and hard about the ramifications of throwing children around like so many discarded orange peels, particularly those who are fragile to begin with. Yes, it is true that MCPS is known nationally, and indeed internationally, for its academic excellence, beautiful schools and outstanding teaching staff.

One would hope the system would also strive for that same distinction of purpose for its compassion and attention to the needs of each and every individual child.

There is a lot to say about special education on many levels, ranging from academic dissertations to medical discourse. For a parent of a special needs child, conversation starts at the visceral level. Everything is personal, and the stakes are high. While full inclusion is an excellent option for many special education students and should always be part of the continuum of special education services, it is not a ‘‘one size fits all” solution.

We ask that you use every means available to make sure that MCPS does not go through with its proposal to close down the secondary learning centers.

Cheryl and Michael Kravitz, Silver Spring

We enjoyed reading the article about the MCPS proposal to eliminate the secondary learning centers. The success story of Aaron Kaufman demonstrated the importance of such specialized programs to many special needs students in MCPS.

Aaron’s story reminded me of our sons’ experience, and those of many other GT⁄LD (gifted and talented⁄ learning disabled) students who have been well served by the MCPS GT⁄LD Center Programs. Unfortunately, MCPS is proposing to reduce the elementary programs from three down to two.

We suppose that MCPS is trying to save money via this downsizing, since they see the program as under-enrolled. Much of the problem is that many MCPS educators do not know about the GT⁄LD program.

A knowledgeable principal helped our older son (with Asperger’s syndrome) get into the GT⁄LD program at Barnsley Elementary School. Two years and a new principal later, when our younger son was struggling with dyslexia, dysgraphia and diminished self-esteem, no one on the staff even knew about the GT⁄LD program. Luckily both of our GT⁄LD sons did attend the GT⁄LD center and thrived with the small class size, specialized instruction, access to accelerated math, social skills training, and the opportunity to get to know other children with similar gifts and challenges.

Access to this high level GT⁄LD programming helped our boys get into the math⁄science⁄and computer science magnet program at Takoma Park Middle School and then (for our ninth-grader) to the Magnet at Blair High School.

We hope that MCPS will preserve the successful and unique K-12th grade GT⁄LD program so that our twice-exceptional students can reach their potential.

Carol Muskin and Chuck Pierret, Silver Spring

What Superintendent Jerry Weast is proposing to do is a crime. His decree that hundreds of special education students enrolled in learning center programs will transition into regular education classes in their home schools is a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal special education law.

Under IDEA, a team made up of the student’s teachers and parents is supposed to determine the appropriate educational setting for that student. The law stipulates that the decision is to be made only after the student’s individualized education team has met and considered his unique educational needs, his personal educational goals, and the services he needs to meet those goals, among other things.

My eighth grader attends the learning center at Montgomery Village Middle School, and her educational plan will be up for review in February. [On three separate occasions, her education team has determined that the learning center is the appropriate placement for her, given the learning challenges posed by her Down syndrome, and the fact that the inclusive classrooms she was in from kindergarten through fifth grade did not allow her to work up to her academic abilities. Indeed, she was so overwhelmed, disengaged, and depressed by her inclusive fourth-grade classes that she routinely slept in class to avoid the unrelenting demands; by fifth grade, her learning had stalled in most subjects and she failed every math test. In contrast, the highly individualized, skilled teaching she has received in the MVMS learning center has enabled her to learn almost every grade-level objective, despite her slower processing speed, distractibility, and other learning quirks.]

I am outraged that Weast is trying to circumvent my right to participate with my daughter’s teachers in determining the most appropriate placement for her by telling us that current eighth graders in learning centers will be placed in inclusive classes at their home schools next year.

Weast’s public flouting of the special education law leaves the MCPS system open to legal sanctions, and the door open for hundreds of families to take the school system to court to fight this illegal predetermination of their children’s placements. If Weast’s highhanded and shortsighted proposal is pushed through, I hope families who are adversely affected by it have the gumption to rise up en masse and challenge him in court. He may have prevailed in Schaffer vs. Weast, but he is not invincible. This time, he is irrefutably in the wrong.

Susan Stokes, Montgomery Village

I write in my dual capacity as the father of a child with pervasive developmental delays and a sensory motor integration disorder, and a professional who has for many years been treating special needs children.

In both capacities, I am astonished that the superintendent of schools proposes to close the learning centers (‘‘Special-ed advocates floored by phase-out of learning centers,” Dec. 20 article).

He opines that more cost-effective education can take place by mainstreaming these children. Despite his love affair with statistics, I wonder if he has ever visited the learning centers for, perhaps, an entire day and spent time with the congeries of children being taught there. If he had, for example, visited my daughter’s classroom at Tilden Middle School and sat down for an extended period of time with her, he would have become familiar with a 13-year-old girl who is struggling with a pervasive developmental disorder and a sensory motor integration disorder.

She was born in Guatemala to a poor woman with no spouse who lived by scavenging in a garbage dump. My daughter was exposed in utero to toxic waste. She was born with many strikes against her.

Had she not had the exposure to the very fine MCPS services from very, very early in life, she would no doubt be on a trajectory toward public assistance. But with early intervention and the skilled intervention provided by a self-contained learning center and its many superlative staff members, she will be able to someday be employed, autonomous, pay taxes and make a contribution to this community.

Her sensory integration disorder renders her central nervous system to become overloaded with stimuli when she is exposed the typical school environment. Her pervasive developmental delay, fraught with frustrations for her and non-special education teachers, can be accommodated by a learning center approach. Why would Dr. Weast want to deprive her of what is clearly helping her — and her peers?

His approach to solving whatever problem he thinks is occurring in the special education department’s budget and⁄or curriculum is reminiscent of the March Hare at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party; i.e., try as he might, he could not fix the White Rabbit’s watch, even though he was using the very best of butter.

Melvin A. Shandler, Ph.D., Chevy Chase

Excellence is the result of caring more than others think wise, risking more than others think safe, dreaming more than others think practical and expecting more than others think possible.

We parents of special needs students often have great difficulty and run into insurmountable obstacles when we seek to provide educational opportunities for our children.

As parents of learning disabled children, all too often we’ve heard from others not to expect too much of our children. Many of us have had to remain ever vigilant, continually pressing for the provision of a continuum of educational and academic opportunities for them. The goal that we seek is for each child to have available those supports that they will need in order to become successful.

A key concern for many of us remains the fact that quite a few our children do not do well in the general education environment. And in the absence of supports from our local boards of education we get more angry, tired and frustrated. Not all of our students can or should ever be included in general education classrooms.

That does not mean, however, that our children cannot learn. They can indeed learn and learn well provided that they are provided with the tools and learning environments conducive to their unique styles of learning. If Montgomery County is allowed to close its learning centers at their middle and high schools, these students will no longer have that option open to them.

Those of us who don’t live in Montgomery County are concerned that if the Montgomery County Public School system, which is generally held in high esteem, is successful in gutting special education programs, other counties will have carte blanc to do the same.

While full inclusion is an excellent option for many students, for some it is never appropriate and can be terribly damaging. When special needs students are placed in general education classrooms without the proper supports to aid in their academic programs, everyone loses. The learning environment becomes untenable for all children and all staff.

Please join with us in demanding that the Montgomery County school system is prevented from closing these centers. The fax number for the school system is 301-279-3860. Nancy Navarro is the president of the Montgomery County Board of Education and she can be reached at 301-279-3617.

Deborah Sell, Bowie