Not So Special

DISD's special education program is anything but, say parents and state officials, and it too often abandons the children who need attention most

Like any other parent, Maria Gomez has high hopes and aspirations for her son. Marco, 16, is a student at Moisés Molina High School in Oak Cliff who is well liked by classmates and teachers for his infectious laugh, limitless energy, and sunny disposition. Of medium height, Marco has a lean build, brown eyes, and an irrepressible smile. Upon first glance, he looks like any other teen who might sit near you in science class or play junior varsity soccer.

But Marco is no ordinary adolescent. He's a special-education student with cerebral palsy and autism, a severe mix that has stunted his development to that of a toddler. His IQ, Maria Gomez says, remains at the level of a 1-and-a-half-year-old despite his young-adult appearance. Although Marco can walk, run, and play in his back yard, he wears diapers and has difficulty with basic tasks such as feeding himself and dressing. He cannot speak, although he understands imperatives from his mother and enjoys finding objects in picture books.

Sitting in an armchair at home as Marco giggles and plays with a Matchbox car nearby, Maria Gomez sees talent and wonder in her child anyway. "Marco has a lot of imagination to pull gadgets together," she says. "He goes into the kitchen to get the screwdriver and puts together bells. He can invent things to make bells chime." Witnessing her son's creativity has convinced Maria that Marco could one day achieve a modicum of personal independence. Enough, perhaps, to live in an assisted-living environment and qualify for light vocational work.

It won't come easily, though. While Molina High School is by no means short of caring teachers and staff, it sorely lacks the trained therapists that are crucial for Marco's development. Daily or weekly therapy for at least half an hour would help Marco learn essential living skills, but Maria says her son usually receives only monthly visits by therapists of about 20 minutes in duration--and that's not enough. "More therapists are needed so children can develop their full potential," she says.

While Maria takes pains to say there is both "good and bad" in the Dallas Independent School District, she also thinks officials don't see students like her son as a priority. "They don't like to spend time with people the IQ of Marco," she says with a hint of anguish. But Maria is positive that a better program would aid her son. She says she witnessed it the year a school-paid therapist tutored her son one-on-one at home. "I saw the change in Marco the year he was here," she says. "He was using the potty chair, dressing, and drinking water from a glass."

Furnishing special-education students with individual tutors, however, is obviously expensive for DISD, and the extra attention didn't last long for Marco Gomez. Soon he returned to a neighborhood school. These days, Marco and his classmates usually watch movies or perform other mundane tasks in the long intervals between therapy sessions. "Most of the time the teachers don't follow the IEP [Individualized Education Plan, educational blueprints formulated by officials for each disabled child]," Maria says. "They only baby-sit."

To hear Maria Gomez tell it, the district is constricting her son's future by failing to provide needed services. Unfortunately, the story of the Gomez family is not unique. For years, the district's special-education department has drawn exceedingly poor marks, a deficiency that critics say is crushing the potential of disabled children. "Kids are losing years of development," says Drew Dixon, associate director of the Arc of Dallas, an advocacy group for the mentally retarded and persons with other disabilities. "You can't go, 'Well, sorry, we goofed that.'"

It's not just the severely disabled suffering in DISD, observers say, but students with less obvious conditions such as learning disabilities, speech deficiencies, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Most criticism centers on the fact that the majority of DISD's 14,000 disabled children are segregated from regular education, leaving them in stigmatized special-education ghettos where less is expected of students. Technology to integrate disabled children into regular education goes untapped, and teachers lack the training to update their practices regardless.

It's a state of affairs that has drawn protests from angry parents and advocates--and recently prompted harsh scrutiny by the Texas Education Agency, which vowed to yank DISD's accreditation and appoint a special master to take charge of special education in Dallas if the situation doesn't improve soon. "This stuff gets done with strong leadership," says Karen Case, an associate state commissioner of education. "If the leadership is constantly changing, then there's no one who owns the problem."

District officials say needed reforms are under way. In some ways, they appreciate state prodding, because it creates pressure and urgency. But change will be difficult, advocates and officials agree, because the status quo is deeply ingrained. "Unfortunately, there are administrators who view special education as an afterthought, a waste of their time, money, and resources," says Ralph Long, whose son has cerebral palsy and attends Hillcrest High School.

But even in a district with claim to both "pockets of pitifulness and pockets of wonderfulness," Long is certain that determined effort can bring success. "If a campus embraces the kids," he says, "then the kids learn."

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