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Will School Ever Have A Happy Ending?

Hartford needs to make its latest experiment with special education students a success

Helen Ubiñas

July 25, 2010

Here's a shocker.

Six months after a damning report on Hartford's special education program for troubled children comes yet another blasting the city for failing its neediest students.

We could spend all day blaming a broken school system, ill-equipped or uninterested parents and teachers. But having read this same report in at least four different versions over the past five years, I'm beginning to wonder if the sad but simple truth is that putting this many intensely troubled children under one roof will never result in anything but disaster.

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We keep saying fix this, change that. Overhaul the program, toss the whole system. We move the school, change its name – and naively hope for different results.

But, are we just kidding ourselves?

To be fair to the students who are too often blamed for their inability or unwillingness to learn, the school system has consistently let them down. Every report, including the latest by the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, agrees that the city has not provided adequate and equal education to the students. Translation: The kids aren't so much taught as they are warehoused in inferior facilities by teachers who may actually want to be there even less than their students.

It is a place that good teachers – those best equipped to meet those students' needs – tend to avoid, Wayne Alexander, director last year of 2550 Main Street Academy, was quoted as saying in the investigative report released earlier this month.

And, as the report disturbingly illustrates, it's the students who suffer for that.

There's Kevin, a young man with a history of acting out when academically frustrated. Perhaps not surprisingly, he threw a chair at a teacher when he was struggling with an assignment. But instead of the school trying to come up with a plan to help him deal with his emotional and educational frustrations, they called police and Kevin was arrested and later sent to an out-of-district school.

And then there's Robert, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite getting very little emotional support at a program inside Rawson School, he did well – at least until the program abruptly ended and he was placed in a regular classroom at the school. His destructive behavior escalated and like Kevin, he was eventually arrested.

"Nobody thought to hold the system accountable," the report reads. "It was simpler just to blame it all on him, and introduce him, at a young age, to the criminal system and the identity of 'criminal.' "

In fact, blaming the troubled students seems to be the only constant in this shameful cycle of complaints, investigations, reports and educational band-aids.

When discussing a 14-year-old eighth-grader named Joseph, investigators came to a heartbreaking conclusion: "For an adolescent who is struggling with all the difficult adjustments inherent in being a teenager, who has long felt intensely frustrated over repeated experiences of failure in school, becoming a 2550 student offers little reason to hope that anything in his life will ever get better."

So where does that leave these children, especially when repeated attempts to fix the school go nowhere?

Well, this is the latest plan: The school system will turn duties of managing and providing services to an outside contractor. It will move the school again – this time into a facility on Locust Street where students who once had only a lone basketball hoop set up near a dumpster will now have a gym, a cafeteria and a library.

The Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities will continue to monitor the program and has requested that the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights investigate.

Sounds like a great start. But then, we've had grand plans before that all ended in the same sad scene.

So, let's give it one more shot – and let's make it count. But if this program gets one more failing grade, we'd better own up to the fact that we can't put so many children with intense needs in one place. And that what's needed is not just a new building or another agency calling the shots, but a whole new way of educating children who need and deserve so much more.

It's time we stop experimenting with their educations, and their lives.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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