Vise, Washington Post, Monday, March 17, 2008
Victoria Miresso cannot button a shirt, match a sock or tell one
school bus from another. Yet at Roberto Clemente Middle School
in Germantown, she is expected to function much like any other
sixth-grader, coping with class changes, algebra quizzes and
Victoria's parents say she is a victim of inclusion: a trend, in
Montgomery County and across the nation, toward shutting down
traditional special education classes and placing special-needs
students in regular classrooms at neighborhood schools.
"At this point, we're about halfway through the school year, and
she hasn't learned anything," said Laura Johnson, her mother.
"It's not fair for her to go to school and sit there and be
teased because she doesn't understand what they're teaching
Montgomery school officials say Victoria is no victim. She is,
however, one of the first generation of students who cannot
attend secondary learning centers, a network of self-contained
classrooms open to special education students at eight middle
and high schools in the county since the 1970s. Montgomery
school leaders decided in 2006 to phase out the centers, part of
an ongoing shift of special-ed students and teachers out of
separate classrooms and into the general school population.
It ranks among the most controversial decisions made by
Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, who has run the
138,000-student system since 1999. A hundred parents picketed
the school board in the dead of winter to protest the closure.
They argued that the small, sheltered classes were the only
setting that worked for their children. Weast and the school
board maintained that students in the centers weren't learning
and deserved the same rigorous lessons offered to everyone else.
The conflict illustrates a broader schism within the special
education community over inclusion, a national effort to break
down the walls that have separated special-needs students from
their peers. Some parents want their special-needs children
exposed to the brisk academics and complex social tapestry of a
suburban neighborhood school. Others, including the Johnsons, do
Victoria Miresso has an IQ of 55, according to diagnostic papers
her parents keep in a thick file at the family home. She is only
partially mainstreamed at Roberto Clemente, taking a mix of
mainstream and special-ed classes. Nonetheless, her mother said,
she is lost.
"She doesn't understand a word," Laura Johnson said. "She writes
on her tests, 'I don't know,' and she has to hand it in."
Students such as Victoria were routinely housed in separate
schools until 1975, when the federal Individuals With
Disabilities Education Act mandated that disabled and
non-disabled students be taught together "to the maximum extent
appropriate." A first wave of inclusion shifted special
education classrooms into neighborhood schools. A second wave,
starting in the late 1990s, moved many special education
students out of those classrooms and into large mainstream
classes, along with an army of special education teachers and
aides charged with helping them keep up.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 pressed the issue further,
requiring school systems to demonstrate that special-ed students
attain academic proficiency at the same rate as their peers.
Only 8 percent of learning center students in Montgomery middle
schools rated proficient last year on the Maryland School
Assessment in reading, and only 4 percent passed the statewide
math test. Students with comparable disabilities who attended
mainstream classes performed much better. Under No Child Left
Behind, all special-needs students tested are expected to pass
School system leaders say the transition, grade by grade, away
from learning centers has been a resounding success. All
sixth-grade teachers and hundreds of aides responsible for
serving the students attended mandatory training over the
summer. Case managers were assigned to each of the 70 students
being mainstreamed, most of whom had attended elementary school
learning centers, which are not being closed. Each student has
been monitored over the year, and extra staff assigned as needed
to help them succeed. A parent survey, given this fall, found
just two parents dissatisfied with inclusion, although only 24
Ketia Ingram-Adams said her 12-year-old foster daughter has made
a smooth transition from an elementary learning center to
mainstream classes at Briggs Chaney Middle School in the
Spencerville area, where she is getting A's and B's.
Ingram-Adams's daughter had no formal schooling until about age
7. School psychologists concluded she had attention-deficit
hyperactivity disorder, although her foster mother thinks that
the diagnosis might be wrong.
Last year, the learning center setting -- 10 students and two
teachers, working at an easy pace -- helped the girl gain years
of missed reading and math instruction.
"She would get tips on things that would help her learn more
math, do better at her reading, practice her writing, her
reading comprehension," the mother said. "And she would
sometimes get frustrated. But they taught her how to get back
the focus, to 'Slow down, close your eyes, count to 10.' "
This year, she has moved effortlessly into the neighborhood
"She can read chapter books, she can do addition and
subtraction, multiplication and division," Ingram-Adams said.
"It's just like they gave her the push she needed in school."
But other parents say inclusion has been a disaster, leaving
their children bewildered and friendless. They are particularly
resentful at being excluded from the decision-making process
that doomed the centers. Resentment lingers, even after Weast
altered the plan so that all of the roughly 600 students
attending the centers could stay through graduation.
Michelle Ryan of Gaithersburg said she was open to the idea of
mainstreaming daughter Allyson, 12, who has autism. She wanted
Allyson to earn a diploma.
But Allyson was not ready for Forest Oak Middle School. She had
a meltdown in the first week of school, "crying and screaming,"
her mother said. She found her locker, and her classes, only
with help from an attentive aide who followed her around.
Today, Allyson is getting B's and C's. But Ryan suspects
teachers might be inflating her daughter's grades to make the
transition look like a success. Worse, Allyson has begun to feel
inferior to her classmates, "and she never had that problem
before," her mother said. Isolated from other special-needs
students, she has no friends and eats lunch alone.
"Yes, academically, it might be better for her to be
mainstreamed, and that was always my goal for her as a parent,"
Ryan said. "But she wasn't ready."
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to