Shortly after 9 o'clock each morning in Paula Campbell's classroom in Houston, Michael sets off on his daily task: rolling his wheelchair slowly across the room, he deposits the class attendance slip in a slot at the door.
Even with the encouragement of teaching aide Mary Pendleton ("C'mon, Michael, you can do it!") it may take the mentally and physically handicapped child eight minutes.
While 9-year-old Michael concentrates, Campbell devotes her attention to Joseph, a smiling boy with a low IQ who cannot talk. The lesson, conveyed by voice and sign language, is how to brush one's teeth.
"Our program is functional living skills," said Campbell, who has three other severely handicapped children in her class at T. H. Rogers School.
Joseph, a 10-year-old who is her least physically disabled pupil, "is capable of doing a lot of things--with supervision," said Campbell. "His mom wants him to be toilet trained, and we're working on that a great deal."
Such are the battles special education teachers wage in public schools across America with tens of thousands of handicapped children: They teach not the ABCs, but the most basic tasks of life.
Self-Sufficiency Is Goal
The challenge is to give handicapped youngsters the survival skills and self-confidence to avoid institutions or dead-end workshops before they turn 22. At that age, the legal right to "a free, appropriate education" expires.
For many, the goal is a job in a fast-food restaurant or similar workplace where a capacity for repetitive work is an asset.
In Newport, Ore., vocational teacher Jan Eberhard lines up jobs for her students in a supermarket, sorting aluminum cans and tending plants.
In a kitchen at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, job coaches from Montgomery County's Rock Terrace School smooth the way for handicapped youths to become regular, paid help.
The Huntington Beach Special Center in Orange County, Calif., sends pairs of students with a teacher to practice cleaning up the beach.
"Some kids take chemistry to learn to be a doctor someday," said Mary Falvey Fuller, a special-education professor at California State University, Los Angeles. "Other kids take a class and learn how to work at Taco Bell."
Aim for Simple Objectives
Success, to the severely handicapped, is learning how to cross streets, ride buses, shop in a grocery store and acquire rudimentary job skills.
For Julie Cupples, getting five retarded students from a special class at Santa Monica High School to venture out to a nearby shopping mall for lunch was "a quantum leap." It was three years before she felt comfortable letting them make the journey alone.
"Street-crossing," said Cupples, "isn't a skill you can do with 80% accuracy."
In West Union, Iowa, Bonnie Schmalle has turned her classroom for mildly retarded students into a cottage industry called the "Corny Cookie Corner." The students bake bread and cookies and make caramel corn, which they sell to local merchants to earn pocket money while they learn job skills.
For most of them, the transition from the accepting world of public school to adult life will be bumpy.
The National Assn. of State Directors of Special Education surveyed its members last year and reported that more than 80% of them believed that "a severe discrepancy exists in their states between the number of people needing adult day training, treatment or supported work programs and the capacity of adult service systems to meet the needs of exiting students."
The state directors said the gaps were causing some families "to now question their early decisions to keep their children in public schools."
'Life Planning' Program
Florence Needles, an administrator for Los Angeles County, said: "I've had principals call me and say that they've had parents in their offices crying the day after graduation: 'Now what do I do? What happens now to my child?' "
To avoid such anguish, the county now starts what it calls "life planning" when seriously handicapped students are 13.
A county pamphlet bluntly raises the questions parents must face as their retarded children grow up: "Where will my child live as an adult? What can my daughter do to earn a living? What will happen to my child when I die? . . . . Who will help my child understand the facts of life?"
Some educators say their biggest struggle is in persuading parents to let their handicapped children grow up.
"My No. 1 enemy in this job is the parent. Absolutely," said Eleanor Fearman, a career education teacher with Los Angeles County.
She said one former student had to quit a job at a VA hospital because his parents were afraid to let him ride the bus home after dark.
Parents Too Protective
"I fought these parents the entire way through school," she said. "I fought them to let me put him in a job. I fought them every step of the way to let him move on. And now he's out of my control and they made him quit the job. He's sitting at home right now."