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Special education moves irk parents

July 08, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Most parents already know where their children are going to attend school in the fall, but Lisa Goodie is waiting to find out.

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Her 4-year-old son, Matthew, has Down syndrome and is in a special education preschool program. The Washington County Board of Education has not determined where the program will be held this year.

"I feel like it's discrimination," said Goodie, who with Kathy Delaportas attended the School Board's July 6 meeting to protest the situation.

"We should know ahead of time what is going on," Delaportas told the School Board.

Her 4-year-old daughter, Katie, also has Down syndrome and functions poorly without routine, she said.

The School Board has moved the program several times in the last few years. Some parents of children with disabilities say the changes are disruptive and make planning ahead impossible.

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"It's a problem we've had and we'd like to solve it," said Director of Student Services Martha Roulette. "We've moved several times. We have not been happy with that."

Cheryl Strong , coordinator of elementary special education, said 101 youngsters between ages 3 and 5 received special education services this year. They include speech services, educational support, itinerant therapists and Head Start programs.

Of the 101 youngsters, 26 went to Marshall Street School, a building that is exclusively for children with disabilities.

The School Board would like to provide preschool services at Marshall Street and provide "decentralized" services elsewhere. "We want to have integration with children who are not disabled," said Roulette.

Other schools allow those students to interact with youngsters without disabilities, according to Roulette. Where appropriate, preschool students should be able to attend their neighborhood schools, she said.

Lack of space and changing enrollments made it hard for the School Board to offer "decentralized" special education services in a consistent location.

For example, Delaportas said she took her daughter for orientation at Eastern Elementary School in the summer of 1997. By September, the program had been moved to Funkstown Elementary School.

In September 1998, the School Board chose Bester Elementary School for the program, but construction at the school made the classroom inaccessible to the handicapped. After a two-week delay, the program started up at Marshall Street.

"Katie's very set in her ways - ritualistic," Delaportas said. "She likes things done in a certain way. I don't like the idea that they're bouncing these kids all over the place.

"It's not fair to the teachers, either. I know they're not happy. They need a building," she said.

The program is excellent, Goodie said. But caring for a child with a disability is challenging enough without a lot of changes, she said.

"There's so much energy and time you have to put into it. Who has time to fight the school system?" Goodie said.

To Delaportas, a fixed location is more important for children with disabilities. "It's vital. That's why it's called 'special' education," she said.

Roulette said the School Board's goal is to come up with a long-term proposal by next spring. "We have a plan that will allow us to have some stability and prevent us from doing some last-minute things," she said.

A decision about this year's location for the program will be made next week, she said.

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