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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Special Ed Joins the Mainstream

The integration of disabled students in San Francisco classes brings results and resentment. L.A. Unified must do so on a much larger scale.

October 25, 2002|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Moji Duenas cannot read and may never learn to. Nor can the 18-year-old walk or speak or feed herself. She is incontinent. Convulsions sometimes rattle her body.

Yet Moji is a high school student in the San Francisco Unified School District, taking most of her classes with teens en route to university. She is part of San Francisco's ambitious -- and sometimes painful -- effort to integrate most disabled students into regular classrooms.

San Francisco began its program eight years ago, making it one of the first urban school systems in the nation to do so. The results have profoundly affected the district, and offer insights for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is wrestling with a federal consent decree requiring a similar transformation.

Many parents and school officials say San Francisco's changes, which now are implemented in half the public schools there, give disabled children a chance to thrive. They have fewer limits placed on them and have nondisabled children as behavior models. Even some parents of regular students say their children are learning valuable lessons in compassion and tolerance.

At the same time, the transition has not been smooth. Some teachers and administrators resent having to work with disabled students. Special education teachers are scarce. A number of handicapped youngsters find it difficult to fit into regular classes -- sometimes they are neglected by teachers, or picked on by schoolmates. And a growing segment of educators says the effort, known as "inclusion," is proving to be more expensive than having separate classrooms for the handicapped.

San Francisco Unified, with its 7,100 special education students, is much smaller than Los Angeles Unified, which has about 81,800, more than half of whom already are mainstreamed for at least part of the day. Los Angeles is under court order to integrate those youngsters further and start desegregation of another 30,000 over the next four years. Los Angeles is seeking to reduce the consent decree's scope, and recently won a concession keeping 4,800 youngsters in separate, special schools.

Both districts have money troubles and a large number of students who are from poor families or are not fluent in English, or both. Both districts have a daunting array of handicapped children, including those with autism, emotional problems, learning disabilities, cerbral palsy, paralysis, blindess and deafness.

"We all -- whether we are general ed teachers or special ed -- share responsibility for educating all the children," said Deborah McKnight, San Francisco's special education director.

Even Moji, who was born with multiple severe disabilities, including brain damage. Her case is testing the limits of inclusion.

Her teachers at George Washington High School, a 1920s-era campus with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, said she has little hope of ever being communicative, much less independent. Still, her mother, Juno Duenas, insisted that Moji (whose given name is Marjorie) spend most of her time in regular classes with a full-time special aide -- and also be given speech and physical therapy.

Because of stress and a $12-an-hour wage, turnover for special education aides is high. In a recent three-week period, Moji had three different aides. The school reported one of them to the police after students witnessed her beating Moji on the head.

But Duenas said her daughter had similar problems when she was in separate special education classes. Mainstreaming, Duenas said, is more likely to improve Moji's communication and social skills.

"As severely disabled as she is, Moji is in the first wave of students being included. I know the risks involved," she said. "But my daughter will not be the last one ... so the district and the schools need to learn how to educate them."

Whatever the benefits for Moji, her presence clearly increased the workload for her Washington High teachers.

Moji's favorite class, Duenas said, was drama. Teacher John Propster said he sometimes worked Moji into scenes by asking her schoolmates to wheel her around the stage and recite lines for her.

During a recent class on Shakespeare, he had his hands full with several disruptive teens -- most of whom did not have disabilities. "If anyone else talks I'm going to take points off!" he yelled. Moji sat silently at the back of the stage for the entire period.

Washington Principal Andrew W. Ishibashi respects the district's policy regarding parents' wishes on inclusion where possible. But he doesn't think it's realistic in the case of severely disabled students like Moji.

"She's mentally untrainable," he said.

Unhappy with that assessment, Duenas recently moved Moji to another public high school in San Francisco, Wallenberg Traditional High. She said her daughter's situation has improved.

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