Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Reaction varies on closing Mark Twain School

Opinions on teaching students with special needs continue to change

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As Mark Twain School in Rockville prepares to close its doors at the end of next school year, some question the validity of the closing while others say the move is progressive.

The school system is moving towards a more inclusive model, including more students with special needs in general education classrooms, said Rebecca Newman, president of the Montgomery County Association of Administrative and Supervisory Personnel.

Mark Twain School serves middle and high school students with emotional disabilities, behavioral problems, learning difficulties and other health impairments, with the intent of helping them become successful enough to return to the general education population.

‘‘There’s the belief that the closer you get students to be able to be educated with peers who are successful, the chance for them to become successful increases and that goes for any student with a disability,” Newman, a former Mark Twain principal, said.

Inclusion is a national trend, said David Wizer, professor and chair of the special education department at Towson University.

The goal is to ‘‘move away from segregated schools and put students with a whole range of needs in a more inclusive setting,” Wizer said. ‘‘That’s the trend, that’s where we want to go.”

But Doug Meinberg, former college and career coordinator at Mark Twain, said closing the school is the worst decision the school system can make.

‘‘To say they want to close an institution because they want to include them, in my opinion, is a scapegoat,” Meinberg said. ‘‘They came from inclusion because they had problems there.”

Meinberg worked at Mark Twain for almost 30 years before losing his job last year as the school prepared to close.

Meinberg said the school system let Mark Twain ‘‘sink its own ship” by letting low test scores lead to their failure to meet Maryland’s standards.

County school officials cited low test scores in its decision to phase out Mark Twain over two years, as reflected in Superintendent Jerry D. Weast’s recommended operating budget for fiscal 2009.

‘‘The Mark Twain School is a model that is not achieving the results it should for all special education students,” Gwendolyn Mason, director of the county’s department of special education, said through the school system’s public information office. ‘‘MCPS believes a less restrictive learning environment will increase the number of students who are able to access appropriate special education and improve their performance outcomes.”

Repeated attempts to get further comment from school officials went unanswered.

For three consecutive years, Mark Twain School failed to meet the target goals for continuous improvement each year, or Adequate Yearly Progress.

Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, is measured by the Maryland School Assessment, a standardized test in reading and math for middle school students. High school students’ progress is measured by the High School Assessment, which tests students in algebra, biology, English and government.

School officials said the reduction of 11.75 full-time employees would save the school system more than $1 million in the fiscal 2009 operating budget. Enrollment will be reduced to 24 students in fiscal year 2009, which is next school year.

Mark Twain stopped taking in new students last year. There are 32 students in the program this year.

School officials said the students will attend school in the cluster programs for students with emotional disabilities located in various county schools, transfer to the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents in Rockville or be placed in private institutions.

School officials said three social workers and three psychologists were added this year to the cluster programs and psychiatric consultation services will be added next year.

The teachers and administrators who lost or will lose their jobs at Mark Twain will have the opportunity to take other jobs within the school system with the help of the teachers’ and administrators’ unions, school officials reported.

Newman said she worked closely with school officials and Mark Twain employees to ensure a smooth transition.

Changing directionsin special education

Newman was principal at Mark Twain from 1986 to 1990. While she was there, she helped revamp the school’s program to accommodate the influx of students the school was receiving at the time.

‘‘It was related to the increased intensity of their disability, so there was an interest to revamp the program so that it be more directly related and spoke to the needs of their disability,” Newman said.

She noted that because of the changes in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at that time, the county was keeping more students in local public schools, like Mark Twain, instead of sending them to private institutions out of state.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, mandates that children with disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment in public schools.

The switch to integrating special-needs students with the general education population in the county dates back at least 10 years.

In 1997, the county school board passed a resolution to conduct a review of the school system’s special education programs and services. The study, done by a team of consultants from the University of Maryland in the 1998-99 school year, recommended eliminating the separation of special education within the administration and within the schools.

Additionally, the report recommended increasing the capacity for general education classes to support students with learning or behavioral needs.

The county public secondary school first started in 1969 by Principal William Porter with the intent to help students who are having trouble in school, said Margaret Rudt, a former Mark Twain student and teacher.

‘‘He was looking for kids he could be successful with,” Rudt, a staff development teacher at Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring, said.

She said that Porter hand-picked students based on teacher recommendations and interviews.

Rudt was one of Mark Twain’s first students, entering the school in 1972 at age 16. She suffered from severe depression stemming from undiagnosed dyslexia, a learning disability in which a person has trouble reading and writing.

She later graduated from college with a degree in art, then earned a teaching certificate and went back to Mark Twain to teach. She is now preparing to publish a novel on her experience at Mark Twain.

‘‘For me at that time, [Mark Twain] was a perfect match,” Rudt said. ‘‘I was shy. The school was small and helped me be more outgoing.”

But the county school system’s approach to special education has changed since 1972, she said.

‘‘If I was identified [as dyslexic] now, I’d probably be in a general education classroom,” Rudt said. ‘‘The school system teachers are better educated and many more teachers are special education certified.”

Meinberg said he thinks the county’s students need a school like Mark Twain now more than ever.

‘‘The social issues are 10 times worse than when it first opened,” he said. ‘‘The county is more impressionable on kids going to college next that they keep the kids with the problems in the shadows.”