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HEALTH : They're Growing Up, Prompting a Debate Over How to Teach Them--and How Well They Learn

October 25, 1988|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

The 4-year-old girl in teacher Vicky Ferrera's preschool class had made remarkable progress, the high point of her year being when she learned to tie her shoes. Mastering that task, which her pals asked her to help them with, made the little girl proud.

Then, in one week, her class took a field trip, went to an assembly and entertained a visitor. To most 4-year-olds, the disruptions would have been easy to handle, even fun.

Not a Trivial Incident

But the deviation from routine so doused the 4-year-old's self-confidence that she suddenly forgot how to tie her shoes. She re-established the skill only after Ferrera taught her how to do it again.

Though the incident may seem trivial, it is not in Ferrera's South-Central classroom, where such small matters are part of a bigger concern for the Los Angeles Unified School District, public educators and health experts nationwide. They all are beginning to deal with the emergence of a generation of children, like Ferrera's student, who are known simply as "drug babies."

These youngsters have been the focus of intense media scrutiny, which has etched into the public consciousness images of infants wailing in hospital cribs as they suffer the effects of their mothers' abuse of alcohol, cocaine, phencyclidine (PCP) and other substances.

But what has been less publicized is that as the drug babies have grown--many now are reaching school age--their presence is prompting questions and concerns about their future in society.

Though studies still are under way, drug babies already have surprised experts by displaying a wider than expected range of academic abilities. This, in turn, has underscored to some researchers the importance that childrens' environment may have on their development.

Experts also are unsure just how many drug babies there are, though they caution that contrary to some public perceptions, the youngsters are not just the offspring of minority group members and the poor.

Instructional Techniques

In Los Angeles, the school district has taken the unusual--and, in some quarters, controversial--step of housing some drug babies, now ages 4 and 5, in three special classrooms in two inner city schools.

There, teachers like Ferrera are trying to identify instructional techniques to help get the drug babies back into regular classrooms as soon as possible.

The Los Angeles experiment began in March with one room at the Sophia T. Salvin School, an elementary school for handicapped children near downtown. This year, the program has been expanded to two classrooms at Salvin with a total of 10 students now and capacity for 16; there also is one room at another, regular elementary school in South-Central Los Angeles. To avoid stigmatizing the children and their parents, the district has declined to identify the second school.

Officials developed the special program at least partly in response to a perception by inner-city teachers and school psychologists that there are so many drug babies in the district that some elementary schools have at least one such child in almost every classroom. They are thought to be enrolled citywide, from Watts to the San Fernando Valley.

Not all experts agree with the district's policy of isolating the youngsters in an experimental program. "I don't really know of any data that would support that," said Dr. Stephen Kandall, a drug baby expert at New York's Beth Israel Hospital.

He said studies thus far suggest that most drug babies will grow up and learn normally or nearly normally: "Most of the studies seem reasonably optimistic, taking into account the negative (physiological) effects. I think these children will end up closer to the mainstream, if the environment at the home level is reasonably intact."

Ferrera said it is too early in the school year to predict whether youngsters in the district program, who will be old enough, will be ready for first grade next fall.

Los Angeles is not alone in facing a daunting challenge of educating drug children. New York, Miami, Detroit and Philadelphia also can expect large numbers of drug babies to enroll in their schools, said Dr. Coryl Jones, a research psychologist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Results of Studies

Based on their studies, experts now believe this about the developing drug babies:

* They seem to display a wider range of academic ability than first was anticipated. Dr. Ira Chasnoff, a prominent drug baby researcher at Northwestern University in Chicago, said he believes that their mothers' drug use will have widely varying effects on childrens' intellectual and educational development; many will qualify for gifted classes, many will be in normal programs and some will be permanently impaired.

But he noted: "Most of these kids are going to end up in a regular school. They're going to end up in regular classrooms and with regular teachers. We're hoping that (with early intervention), nothing special will be needed for them."

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