emotional school-choice battle: Segregated or mainstream?
by Eric Hubler, Denver Post, February 17, 2003
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Opal and Kim Boucher were
grateful for the care their son Ryan got in the local
elementary school, but in third grade, when his seizures
intensified, a parting of ways seemed unavoidable.
Ryan - whose many ailments include blindness and what his mom
calls "a touch of cerebral palsy" - went on a diet requiring
extremely accurate food measurements.
"They told us there was no way they could keep up with that,"
Opal Boucher recalls. "That's when I started saying, 'What
options do I have as a parent?"'
Because they live in Jefferson County, the Bouchers did have
an option: Fletcher Miller School, which opened in Lakewood 40
years ago especially for kids with special needs. Ryan, 14,
has been at Miller five years. He has learned such skills as
dressing himself and brushing his teeth, things his parents
say they believe he never would have picked up in a regular
Yet Miller is an anachronism, just slightly less out-of-step
than paying teachers in molasses. A few decades ago, "special"
schools were a common way for children with disabilities to
get an education. Now, Miller is the only such school in
Colorado - popular with parents but swimming against a tide of
academic research and a political mood influenced by the civil
Special schools started losing favor in the 1970s, when
parents equated them with segregation, said Doug Fisher, an
education professor at San Diego State University. Researchers
stepped in and found integration yields better academic
"We've known for 25 years that tracking doesn't work, even for
the severely developmentally disabled," he said last month in
Denver, at a conference for special-ed teachers and parents.
"I would say to anyone who runs a self-contained, special
school: You should close it."
That's what Denver Public Schools did in 1991, when it shut
Charles Boettcher School, which was connected by tunnel to
Children's Hospital. The hospital paid DPS $1.5 million and
razed the school for a parking lot.
Originally named Boettcher School for Crippled Children, it
opened in 1939 to educate kids disabled by polio. As polio
declined, children with developmental disabilities were
admitted, even though public schools were under no obligation
to take them until federal law forced them to in 1975.
That made Denver more progressive than many school systems
nationwide, said Pam Bisceglia, whose 21-year-old daughter
went through regular schools despite her learning disabilities
and who has researched the history of special education in
Even in Denver, however, families could be treated cruelly. In
1955, a boy with Down syndrome who had done well in
kindergarten at his neighborhood school came home from first
grade with a note pinned to his shirt saying he could not
benefit from school and would not be allowed back.
"I think we've grown a lot as a community and as a country,"
Boettcher closed "because we had a firm belief that the needs
of youngsters who were in the school could be met in
neighborhood school settings, not segregated school settings,"
said John Leslie, student services chief at DPS.
In cases where the local school can't be made accessible to
students with disabilities, kids are bused to the nearest
school that can. Integration advocates consider these "center
placements" a compromise, but still better than separate
Today, Colorado mainstreams far more kids than most states. In
2000-01, less than 0.5 percent of special-ed kids in Colorado
were in separate public schools or treatment facilities. The
nationwide number was 1.87 percent.
Even when special-ed kids go to regular schools, advocates
consider them segregated if they spend time away from other
students their age, in so-called resource rooms.
By this standard, too, Colorado leads most states. In 2000-01,
only 8 percent of Colorado special-ed kids received services
outside regular classrooms more than 60 percent of the school
day. Nationally, 20 percent did.
Chris Patton, 19, will graduate this year from Denver's PS1
Charter School. His is the sort of inclusion success story
prized by those opposed to special schools - including his
father, Tom Patton.
A special school "would have more services, but it wouldn't
have the outcome," Tom Patton said. "If he's going to be as
independent as possible later on, having a lot of services
doesn't necessarily enable that. In fact it can sometimes do
Chris has severe autism. He can barely speak; sometimes he's
noisy and hyperactive; often he needs a reassuring hand to
His classmates insist on his right to be part of their
academic and social world.
"I'm glad it's changed," said Evan Wiig, 16. "Even though he
has differences, he also has similarities. He laughs just like
Recently in advisement, a sort of expanded homeroom, Megan
Watts, 17, talked about bowling and eating pizza with Chris,
and angrily recalled the day the class went to an elementary
school to read to children, only to have an assistant
principal become distressed upon seeing Chris.
The principal later apologized, but said things would have
gone smoother if someone had called ahead to let her know
about Chris's autism, something the PS1 crew didn't find
Asked about that day, Chris pecked out "very autism fear me"
on a portable keyboard.
Asked about PS1, he typed, "real friends care top shelf."
Although the Pattons and many other families believe all
schools can educate special-needs kids with the right effort,
Miller School is so prized by parents statewide that principal
Dave Spinks has started putting applicants outside Jefferson
County on a waiting list.
"The law still requires that schools provide a full continuum
of services for kids," said Spinks, who once taught at
Boettcher. "Jefferson County is the only school district in
the state that still provides a full continuum."
Nobody is forced to come to Miller, Spinks said. It's a school
of choice, just like ones for advanced students.
"When the whole concept of choice and charter came to the
foreground, a lot of (special-ed) parents said, 'We want
choices for all of our kids, not just the gifted kids.' And
what we're being told is, 'We only have one choice, the
regular classroom, and it's not working for my child,"' he
Many of Miller's 171 students are there only temporarily, as
they prepare to move into an inclusive environment - or flee
"Every year kids' programming is looked at and you move kids
up and down that continuum as their needs change," Spinks
"This is my 37th year, and I can tell you, there is no magic
place. It's all dependent on what the individual student's
needs are, and it takes all of us. We have students coming and
At the recent parents' conference, researcher Fisher called
that kind of thinking "malpractice."
Fisher is right about one thing, Spinks said: There is no
scientific evidence that special schools produce better
But test scores aren't uppermost in the minds of scared,
exhausted parents craving help, Spinks said. Miller offers IV
drips in the lunchroom, sensor-activated water fountains, an
exercise pool and hallways wide enough for therapeutic
tricycles. There are nurses, physical therapists, occupational
therapists, speech therapists and "para-educators serving
personal needs" - bathroom aides.
The bathroom aides have been surprisingly important for
9-year-old Trey Moench, who has cerebral palsy, his stepmother
Danielle Hanna said. He probably would still be using diapers
if he were in a typical school, she said.
Now Miller staffers are teaching Trey to feed himself.
"Do you know how much easier it would make my life if he were
able to do that?" asked Hanna, grinning at the prospect of a
touch more independence for both of them. Now 24, she has been
caring for Trey since she was 19.
Spinks said he believes special schools will make a comeback.
But not before grown-ups expend a lot more energy bickering.
"They say, never argue about politics and religion. This is
right up there. It's very, very emotional," he said.
Sandi and Jim Taylor are trying something new. They send their
daughter, Julia, 17, to Jefferson High School for academic
classes each morning and to Miller for therapy and work
training in the afternoon.
The combination "has been a perfect fit," Sandi Taylor said.
Julia, who has a chromosomal syndrome similar to Down
syndrome, will earn a Jefferson High diploma - a win for
Yet the whole family has a comfort level with Miller that they
don't want to give up.
"She wouldn't want to be at Jefferson High all day," Sandi
Taylor said. "Not slamming Jefferson or anything, it's just
that she has a good time with her friends at Miller."
Living near Colorado's last special school has been great for
Julia, she said.
"It was there, thank God," she said. "They know what they're
doing. Their expertise helped her immensely."