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Settlement could pull students out of Learning Center

January 24, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. ? The settlement in a class action lawsuit involving special needs students in Pennsylvania could pull students out of Franklin Learning Center, which serves children from the Chambersburg, Waynesboro, Tuscarora, Greencastle-Antrim and Fannett-Metal school districts.

The settlement in Gaskin v. Pennsylvania was signed in 2005 after a decade of litigation. It calls for schools to place special needs students in the "least restrictive environment" by integrating them into schools and classrooms as much as possible.

"The Franklin Learning Center goes against this," Chambersburg Superintendent Joseph Padasak told the school board Wednesday. "We have to come up with a way to assimilate these students into the general population."

The center, administered by the Lincoln Intermediate Unit, has about 200 students from the five districts, half of them from Chambersburg, Padasak said. It is one of only two such learning centers in the state, the other being in York County, he said.

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Learning Center students might have to go to other schools

One means of complying with Gaskin could be to have a full-day kindergarten class of general education students in the building, he said. Doing so might satisfy requirements that special needs children be able to interact with other students, he said.

If that does not meet with Pennsylvania Department of Education approval, learning center students might have to be integrated into the district's other schools.

"We have parents who love having their children go there," said Lisa Frantz, Chambersburg's director of Special Education. Some students have medical needs and other disabilities that can best be met at the center, she said,

Other parents want their children attending district schools, she said.

"If a parent is opposed to it, we do not send them to the center," Frantz said. The number of students at the center is a small percentage of the 1,700 district students with individualized education plans, or IEPs, she said.

Students with IEPs cover the gamut of learning challenges, from those who need little specialized help to children requiring full-time personal assistants, she said.

Chambersburg one of lowest-ranking districts for inclusiveness

The 501 school districts in Pennsylvania are judged as to whether their policies are inclusive enough to satisfy terms of the Gaskin settlement, Frantz said. The 250 lowest-ranking districts are placed in one of three tiers and must take corrective action to become more inclusive, she said.

The result, Frantz said, is that half of all the school districts always will be judged as failing to meet the standards. Chambersburg is in the lowest tier, among the bottom 20 districts in the state, she said.

"We have too many kids in the middle level, called resource room kids," Frantz said. Those students spend 22 percent to 60 percent of their time in special education classes. The district must increase the number of itinerant students, those who spend 21 percent or less of their time in special education classes, she said.

One way to do that on the secondary level is co-teaching, with special education teachers and their students going into regular classrooms, Frantz said.

"It really does work well ... a lot of our special ed kids are really benefiting from it," she said. For students with more profound behavioral, emotional or academic disabilities, personal assistants are often needed to work with students one-on-one, she said.

Action would create several challenges

"Over the last several years, the number of personal assistants we've hired for students has skyrocketed," Frantz said. In 10 years, the number has gone from about five to 75, with the district having more assistants than special education teachers, she said.

In elementary schools, special education teachers work with all grades and each class has a classroom aide, she said.

If students have to be taken from the center and placed in district schools, it creates several challenges, Frantz said. Additional classroom space, personal assistants and support services would be needed, she said.

It also places pressure on general and special education teachers and their students to co-exist in the same environment, while meeting No Child Left Behind requirements for improved test scores, she said.

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