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Special ed's under fire in Portland

School staff speak out against cuts affecting kids with special needs
by: JIM CLARK, Daniel Holland, 7, has Down syndrome but is doing well in mainstream classes, according to teacher Rebecca Wagner. “He’s capable of everything,” she says.

The students in Rebecca Wagner's class at Sunnyside Environmental School can tell you what each of their classmates' strengths and weaknesses are.

'They know so-and-so is really good at art but is working on keeping his hands to himself,' Wagner says. 'They know that so-and-so is great at spelling but needs to work on waiting his turn.'

In the case of Daniel Holland, the kids would tell you that he loves drumming and playing tag, and is working on his reading and writing. It's not like he's lacking imagination: 'He writes great stories,' Wagner says. 'He used to be into ghosts for a while. Now he's into (outer) space.'

At a time when Portland Public Schools' special education teachers and school psychologists are saying they are overwhelmed with too few resources and too much paperwork, 7-year-old Daniel - who has Down syndrome - is thriving in his mainstream classroom environment, his teacher, principal and mother say.

'Daniel's self-esteem is solid,' says Wagner, who has been his teacher for two years since her classroom is a first-second grade split. 'He's capable of everything. His socialization has grown in leaps and bounds. Academically, he's shining. He knows the rules, and they're the same as anyone else.'

Daniel may be one success story, but the issue of how kids with special needs are taught, and how teachers can best accommodate them, came to the forefront last week when several teachers and school psychologists spoke out at Monday evening's school board meeting.

Beaumont Middle School psychologist Mark Downing says the district's most vulnerable students are suffering because recent staff cuts effectively 'dumped' more work on teachers.

'They have done a lot less teaching, to do report-writing and due-process paperwork,' says Downing, who now splits his time between two schools to fill a staffing gap. 'It's obvious the kids are getting less instruction than last year.'

Mary Mertz, the district's director of special education, was unavailable to comment for this story but told the board she was unaware of these complaints. School staffing details will be sorted out this spring during the district's budget process.

Inclusion effort began in 2004

While Daniel might be learning in the mainstream, many of the district's 6,300 special-education students are served outside of regular classes by a broad network of teams and programs such as Life Skills.

Some people, like Angela Jarvis Holland, Daniel's mother, think that serving these students separately is just plain wrong. 'He was born into this community as part of this community, and we really need to think hard before we segregate children,' she says of her son.

She wonders whatever happened to the district's push for total inclusion - moving all students with disabilities into mainstream classrooms - which began in 2004 but then faltered.

The district had hired a new special education director, Michael Remus, from Williamson County, Tenn. Remus was a big advocate for inclusion, which is a controversial idea nationwide because some parents and teachers complain that accommodating these children's needs takes too much time away from other students.

But Remus believed that with the proper support, as outlined by their individual education plans, special ed students learn best in the general population.

He would have done away with Portland's self-contained special ed classrooms such as Life Skills, which draw students from across the city. He wanted to instead create 'learning centers' at each school, places where students with disabilities could go for an hour or more a day to get extra help from special ed teachers.

'We all felt like, 'Wow, this is exciting,' ' says Holland, a big supporter of inclusion through a parents' group called the Northwest Down Syndrome Association. 'We had this great hope of all the walls coming down.'

But Remus left the district after 18 months for family reasons, and now works as special education director in Deer Valley, Ariz. The district promoted Mertz, the former assistant director, to lead Portland's special education department.

Sarah Carlin Ames, a district spokeswoman, says Superintendent Vicki Phillips appreciated Remus' work toward inclusion but also wants to ensure that classroom teachers have the training they need to work with this range of students.

'It's a definite balance where you want to make sure you aren't putting kids into a situation where the schools aren't prepared to do the best for the kids,' Ames says.

Determining needs is key

One morning last week, Daniel sat with his aide at a round table with other students.

They used pencils to write in their journals, and he used his special computer program and headphones. The software uses word prompts and picture icons, such as sun, moon, planet and rocket, so that Daniel can dictate stories to his aide.

One of his recent stories was called 'Ghost Party.' It goes like this: 'The dragon lived in the castle. His name was Dude. The ghost lived in the castle. His name was Boo. They had a surprise party and played Legos and ate pie.'

The extra chromosome Daniel was born with makes his thinking and motor development different from other kids, so he is slow to process instructions and move from task to task.

Wagner is lucky to have the assistance of three other adults in the room to look after her 28 kids - her aunt, who volunteers to help with writing lessons once a week; a student teacher from Lewis and Clark College, who will soon take over full time for six weeks; and a special education teacher who comes in for about 20 minutes a day to help Daniel and the other kids in the room with individual education plans.

Sunnyside's principal, Sarah Taylor, says that teachers at many schools are strapped for resources but still believes that students with disabilities should be taught in the mainstream whenever possible.

Accommodating their needs is no different than being sensitive and flexible to the needs of other kids, she says, such as when she recently let a girl bring a litter of guinea pigs to school after her father died.

She also let students organize a peace march and litter patrol on Southeast Belmont Street to recognize the recent shooting two blocks away.

Another boy, with autism, 'was in trouble all the time,' Taylor says. Since he's decided to take charge of the orchard bees at the school, his behavior has improved, and he's feeling like a bigger part of the school community.

'It's about figuring what kids need at that moment,' Taylor says. 'We have to constantly be creative, not just with children with special needs, but with all children.'

The Northwest Down Syndrome Association is promoting an upcoming workshop on diversity and inclusion, called 'All Born In,' set for April 28.

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