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Handicapped Students Learn in Creative Ways

February 3, 1990

CLINTON, Md. (AP) _ The eighth-grade history class at Stephen Decatur Middle School had taken on the competitive feel of a television game show.

″Name the King of England who wanted to move away from the Catholic church and wanted to establish his own church,″ challenged teacher Georgia Runfola.

″I know, I know,″ yelled a student, swiftly flipping through a textbook. ″Henry the Eighth.″

″Good job,″ responded special education teacher Brenda Morris.

Runfola and Morris are team teachers, participants in a program in this Prince Georges County school designated to further the ″mainstreaming″ of students with mild learning disabilities into regular classroom environments.

Only the teachers know which students have learning disabilities.

″You don’t make a distinction in the classroom,″ said Dawn DeTurris, another team teacher. ″Teachers put the roll in alphabetical order and then they soon forget, hopefully. They try to meet the needs of all students as they come up, whether they have a handicapping condition or not.″

The program at Stephen Decatur is one of many efforts nationwide to help children with special educational needs, a group that is drawing increased attention just a few miles away in the nation’s capital.

The Supreme Court recently let stand a ruling that all handicapped children, even those lacking any learning ability, are entitled to education paid for by the public schools.

President Bush, who pledged during the campaign to be the ″education president,″ has promised to educate all of America’s children.

David Chavkin of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs said about 4.1 million children classified as mentally or physically handicapped are being educated in federally assisted education programs. These include more than 1.5 million children with specific learning disabilities, more than 1 million with speech impairments, nearly 1 million mentally retarded, more than 300,000 with serious emotional disturbances, and more than 300,000 with orthopedic impairments, with vision or hearing impairments, and with other health impairments, or with multiple disabilities.

For the current 1990 fiscal year, the Education Department’s budget for special education and rehabilitative services programs is about $4 billion. Education for handicapped children cost the nation’s schools $16 billion last year.

An example of how that budget leaches down to the local level is in Prince Georges County. The head of the program, Robert Coombs, describes it as ″highly respected and well-known.″

In Prince Georges, 1,200 teachers, instructional aides, therapists and middle managers handle about 11,000 special education students. The county’s budget for the current school year is $53 million, with only about $3 million from the federal government.

Coombs said the program allows special education to move away from a ″mini, one-room schoolhouse environment.″

″The nice part about this is if you are a multi-level student who just can’t make it in math but do pretty well in everything else, we can ‘pull’ that student for intensive work in math only and keep him mainstreamed for all the other subjects,″ said Coombs.

Although the students’ anonymity is broken that way, Coombs and others said the benefits of the special work are great.

About 135 of the 800 students at Stephen Decatur are special education students, most of them coming from six different areas of the county. The middle school is one of three in the county with an entire wing of the building for special education students. Mildly handicapped students can receive either periodic monitoring with no direct service or up to at least 20 hours of special education service, depending on need.

Students ″pulled out″ from the regular class receive separate instructions in ″intensive resource″ classes that have student-teacher ratios as low as 7-to-1. The average class size is about a dozen students.

Combs explained, ″One of the things you run into in secondary schools that enroll mildly handicapped kids is they get very resistant to being labeled as different than all the other students.″

″They don’t like that and they don’t like to be pulled out and have to go down the hall″ for separate classes that focus on their special needs.

Students with severe learning disabilities are taught in so-called ″self- contained units″ and do not attend classes with regular students, said Coombs.

″Special education students get individualized instruction when necessary,″ said Dawn Thigpen, who oversees special education programs at several of the county’s middle school. ″The teams work very hard with parents to make sure the student is placed in the least restrictive environment.″

Ms. Thigpen said that team teaching is a favorite and teachers have developed a variety of strategies.

For example, the teachers try to divide up the course work according to the strengths and weaknesses, or likes and dislikes, with each taking turns to lead class work during a period. In other teams, one teacher will take over the classroom on one day and the other teacher the next day.

″What is neat is that you can meet the needs of regular education students as well as the needs of students who have handicapping conditions,″ said Joan Harris, an English and reading team teacher.

Teacher Kathy Doyle added: ″With two people, you can do a lot of proactive behavior management, where you defuse a behavior problem before it starts. ... You can have one teacher take a child out of the classroom before he affects the others.″

One drawback to the approach, volunteered one eighth grader, comes ″when the teachers both talk at once. I get confused.″

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