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 Article of Interest - Inclusion

Meeting Special Needs; An 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 school.

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 rights era.

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 scores.

"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 Denver.

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," Bisceglia said.

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 schools.

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 the opposite."

Chris has severe autism. He can barely speak; sometimes he's noisy and hyperactive; often he needs a reassuring hand to hold.

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 everybody else."

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 necessary.

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 said.

Many of Miller's 171 students are there only temporarily, as they prepare to move into an inclusive environment - or flee one.

"Every year kids' programming is looked at and you move kids up and down that continuum as their needs change," Spinks said.

"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 going constantly."

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 academic scores.

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 inclusion.

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."
 

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