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L.A. Unified Approves Revamp of Special Ed

The school board unanimously passes the compromise plan to improve services for disabled students and their families.

May 14, 2003|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Unified School District unanimously approved a proposal Tuesday intended to improve services for thousands of disabled students by integrating more of them into regular classrooms.

The compromise plan also calls for speedier handling of parents' complaints, prompt and appropriate assessment of students' needs, and close supervision of the district by an independent monitor.

"I think it is a red-letter day for us, marking a new spirit of cooperation between parents and the school district," said Harold Kwalwasser, general counsel for L.A. Unified.

"This agreement is terrific because it focuses on the real substance of special education in the district. These [changes] are much more real in terms of providing special education for kids. And we can do it."

The agreement in the Chanda Smith case, named for a disabled girl whose family sued the school district, replaces an earlier federal consent decree that district officials had complained was too costly and burdensome.

The district appealed the decree to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which appointed a federal mediator to negotiate a settlement between the school district and parents who argued that their disabled children were unnecessarily segregated and deprived of an adequate education.

Some parents remain skeptical that the new plan will improve services, which they say have been inadequate for years.

"I don't believe them," said Eva Lopez-Blanco, stepmother of two disabled high school students. "It's not going to be possible. There are [budget] cutbacks, and all of that is going to affect special education."

When she complained about services for her sons, she said, "I received no callbacks. I have missed a lot of work," she said. "I have done everything that is required, and I was given the runaround."

Donnalyn Jaque-Anton, associate superintendent for the district's division of special education, said the new plan is designed to prevent the kind of problems Lopez-Blanco encountered.

"When complaints come in, we will respond to them immediately," she said. "In special education especially, our parents need help in knowing how to navigate the system. We haven't really done our job in terms of walking them through. This is a real improvement."

Under the new plan, complaints and requests for individual student evaluations will be responded to promptly, she said. The plan also requires that the district decrease disabled students' suspension rates, increase the number of disabled students who graduate and assess students' academic performance on a regular basis.

"We are really expecting results for these students," Jaque-Anton said.

The new plan abolishes a directive requiring that every campus, including 16 of the district's special education centers, enroll 7% to 17% disabled students. But the plan still calls for integrating about 33,000 disabled students, at least to some degree, in regular classrooms -- a difficult and sometimes controversial proposition.

From the district's perspective, the new plan is better than the old one because it gives officials more freedom in deciding how to integrate students. But Lopez-Blanco said integration would be a disaster for her stepson, who has been enrolled entirely in special education courses at Manual Arts High. She said her stepson cannot concentrate, and sometimes he just walks out of class.

"If they put my youngest son in a regular class, he is going to be a very disruptive person who is going to annoy a lot of regular students who are there to study. And he's going to get beat up," she said.

Jaque-Anton said "the decision [to integrate] will be made according to each child, and parents will have a say. This is not full inclusion, although some kids will be fully included" in regular classes.

Under the plan, most students with learning disabilities will be integrated into general education classrooms for part or most of the school day, with special assistance such as tutoring and aides. Other students with severe disabilities may be included in certain classes, such as art or music, with aides or extra teachers, Jaque-Anton said.

"They will receive support in the classroom," she said. "We're really looking at models that begin to think about how we can serve each child."

Under the new agreement, the independent monitor, Carl Cohn, former superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, will report on the district's performance to a federal judge.

Cohn earned a national reputation for the improvements he made during a decade at the Long Beach district, the third-largest in the state after Los Angeles and San Diego. He retired from that district last year.

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