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New Hope For Troubled Special Education Program

By STEVEN GOODE

July 23, 2010

HARTFORD By the time schools open in late August, officials hope to have put behind them five years of problems and complaints related to the city's inability to provide an adequate and equal education to students with emotional and behavioral problems.

They expect to have chosen by then one of several bidders interested in taking over the duties of managing and providing services to those students.

Over the past five years, at least four formal complaints from parents, state agencies and child advocacy groups have been lodged against the city school system over its special education program. As a result, the program has changed locations, each time seeking to make improvements to solve a long list of problems.

In its request for management services for the program, school officials said they need someone to formulate individual education plans for students. Among other requirements listed: providing on-site speech, language, physical and occupational therapy; individual and group counseling; psychological and psychiatric counseling; access to technology training; employment opportunities for students; extracurricular activities; and a fully developed behavioral management program.

They also asked for help in hiring trained special education teachers, counselors and behavior interventionists.

Wayne Alexander, principal last year at 2550 Main Street Academy, told state investigators in November that the program there for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities in middle school and high school lacked adequate funding, competent special education teachers, a job coach, internships for students and support for families, and even a gym.

"These are kids nobody wants, taught by many of the staff who for one reason or another end up at 2550 because of poor job performance," Alexander was quoted as saying in an investigative report released earlier this month by the state Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities.

"We have few staff, and even fewer who know what to do. The most difficult kids get the lowest level of training due to the limitations of our contractual agreements. We need special education teachers who are competent and who want to be here."

In the most recent investigation of the program, conducted last school year, investigators determined that students suffered discrimination and segregation related to the schools' open choice policy and budgeting procedures. The report also found probable cause that the district failed to properly educate students and created barriers to supporting them in regular classroom settings.

David Medina, a school system spokesman, said in a statement that the city has a disproportionate number of students with severe behavioral problems and that number continues to increase because magnet and charter schools and open choice programs have not offered appropriate programs for such students.

As complaints and investigations arose through the years, the school system disbanded programs on Washington Street and at the Learning Corridor. It relocated the program with promises of improvements, only to be dogged by the same issue of failing to provide students there the education guaranteed them under federal and state statutes.

Now the program is on the move again, to 245 Locust St. Officials vow that the result will be different this time because the city is hiring an outside contractor to formulate and manage the program.

The Locust Street facility, which housed students from Mary Hooker School last year while their school was being renovated, will offer an immediate improvement: It already has a gymnasium, library and cafeteria.

"We're expecting that an external agency with expertise in dealing with students with emotional disabilities will be equipped to provide for the academic and emotional needs of those students," said Miriam Morales-Taylor, assistant superintendent for learning support services. "This year we had four students from 2550 Main Street who graduated and will be attending local community colleges. We anticipate that many more will be graduating and going on to college under the new arrangement."

Milly Arciniegas, president of the Hartford Parent Organization Council, said she was pleased that the schools have decided to hand over management of the program to an outside contractor and still keep the students in the city. She said that taking hiring out of the hands of the teachers' union is a major component to building a successful special education program.

"The last three times the complaints were brought, it had to do with staff and resources," she said. "They can hire their own staff and not worry about seniority rules."

James D. McGaughey, executive director of the state Office for Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, was less convinced that the city will solve its problems by bringing in an outside agency.

"We're going to have to wait and see, but it may be part of the answer," he said. "It could be a partial solution for kids most affected by emotional disabilities, but it doesn't mean the system can just wash its hands of improving its assessment capabilities."

McGaughey said his agency would continue to monitor the program and has requested that the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights investigate Hartford's student-based budgeting system (which budgets money based on student population), its disciplinary practices and patterns of segregated placements of students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

The agency has also asked that the state Department of Education look into the city's practices.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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