Parents See Cracks in System

Parents See Cracks in System

Parents urge Arlington Public Schools to do more for special education students and to understand the needs of students with mental illnesses.

Do more, that was the message from parents with children who have special needs to members of Arlington's Special Education Advisory Committee during a public forum Wednesday night. After the new director of special education for Arlington Public Schools, Norma Villanueva, unveiled her strategy for addressing the challenges for educators of special needs students, parents voiced concern and outrage over cracks in the district's current policies and practices.

"Part of it is that the folks teaching our children just don't know how to teach someone who can't be just moved along, in one way and out the other," said Cherie Takemoto, calling on the committee to push for the development of methods that could adapt class curriculums for special education students.

Other parents pointed out specific flaws in the system, cases when students with learning difficulties could not get the level of attention they needed or when those with mental illnesses went unnoticed.

"The effort it takes for a child with Attention Deficit Disorder to write legibly is enormous," said parent Peter Schaefer, suggesting that Arlington schools teach keyboarding skills to students with attention problems. "The task of writing a just a short composition for homework can leave them breathless. The technology is there, the research is there, but the attitude and the equipment is not there."

Villanueva outlined a 12-part plan of attack she developed during the last five months. A former education administrator from Baltimore who once oversaw work in 188 schools, Vallanueva said one of her top priorities is the elimination of the academic achievement gap.

"IN OUR COUNTY, generally, African American students are overrepresented in special education classes," said Villanueva, who added that Latino students also account for a disproportionate segment of those students. "It seems that students are sometimes referred to special education programs because of cultural differences."

Villanueva said Arlington schools should also seek out better methods for integrating special needs students into mainstream classrooms. The conditions under which most special education and special needs students attend school, she said, only prevent them from further developing social skills.

"We're hoping this will result in students receiving educational services in a less restrictive environment," said Villanueva.

Other initiatives on her agenda for special needs students include additional support for programs serving autistic children and increased parental involvement in decision-making for their children. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, she said, Arlington schools are also required to form policies to raise the level of accountability and foster collaboration among educators who deal with special needs students.

Villanueva also called for the creation of behavioral policies that will compel educators to intervene if the way a student acts in class prevents them from learning.

Many parents also cried out for the needs of students with mental illnesses.

"Society and its schools treat the child with a severe brain injury much more kindly than the child suffering from a mental illness," said Betsy Greer, who credited Villanueva with the creation of a parent focus group on the issue. "Children with mental illnesses are not mentally retarded, they are often very intelligent. Mental illnesses are not character illnesses. These children are not the product of poor parenting."

TO FUND THE county's special education plans, Villanueva presented a long list of state and federal grants Arlington schools now have for support. Drawing from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) grants, Arlington schools received more than $4 million for special education student programs. A $32,000 Silver grant was also received to establish a system for collecting data and better documenting special education students.

The forum's purpose, Villanueva said, is to gather information on special education needs in Arlington. The committee plans to incorporate the complaints aired by parents into the recommendations it will deliver to the Arlington School Board April 7. The report is required by state law.