Not So Special

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."

Ann Bramlett is another parent who has kept the heat on DISD to overhaul special education. The speech-language pathologist's 16-year-old son, Sam, has autism, a neurological disorder that impairs speech and communication skills. Sam will likely never be able to process verbal and written language. Nonetheless, officials at W.T. White High School in North Dallas have endeavored to "mainstream" him into several regular-education classes, including choir, gym, and computer class, which he relishes.

Convincing school officials to accommodate her son's special needs throughout her family's 11-year DISD journey has been trying, Bramlett says, but she acknowledges that things are probably worse elsewhere. "We actually left another school district because they knew nothing about autism," she says. "We came to DISD because they at least knew something."

Later, after attending conferences and heading a local advocacy group for families of autistic children, she concluded that the district's approach was behind the times. The problem: Much of DISD still employs "self-contained" programs rather than mixing children in with regular-education classes to the extent possible. Rather than pick up again and move to a more progressive district, however, the Bramletts decided to stay and push for improvement. "I felt like if you keep moving, then nobody has to change," Ann Bramlett says.

Ralph Long and his wife, Linda, have also fought hard to get their son Gene Michael (nickname "Scooter") included in the everyday life of their school. Gene is a junior at Hillcrest High School with cerebral palsy, a brain disorder that impairs motor function. He also has hydrocephalus, a condition in which cerebral fluid doesn't drain properly. Despite his condition and need for a special artificial drain device, Gene is enrolled in several general education classes, including science, history, English, and computer science. After graduation, he plans to take community college classes.

Although Ralph Long is quite critical of the district, he realizes many schools, including Hillcrest, have labored mightily to improve their special-education programs. "We probably have a far better situation than a lot of other people in Dallas whose kids are at our son's level," he says. "Oftentimes it comes down to who is running that particular campus."

But Long recalls that when Gene was starting his education, there was a totally different environment where "inclusion" of special-education students was an utterly ignored concept. In elementary school, his son had command of basic language skills. But school officials, noting his disability, put him in a room full of children with Down Syndrome. The result: Gene's development regressed. "When he came home," Ralph Long recalls, "he would not say, 'I would like a glass of milk.' He would go to the refrigerator and say, 'Unh unh.'"

The Longs were incensed. They demanded the school place Gene in a more challenging environment and grant him recess time with the other children. The school's principal was at first baffled by their persistent complaints, but eventually conceded to their demands. "It took a while for us to make everybody understand that, no, we were not obnoxious, demanding parents," Ralph Long says.

The Long family's story shows what can be gained through tenacity. But not every family has the time or knowledge to demand better from DISD, a fact borne out by state statistics. The district admits that 60 percent of special-education students aren't educated in the least restrictive environment possible--LRE in special-education lingo--as mandated by federal and state law. Incredibly, a state Special Education Compliance Status (SpECS) report on DISD says that the number is actually "increasing" and that the district is "unresponsive."

Exacerbating current problems is the disorganized state of the special-education department. When E.D. Walker High, once reserved for severely disabled students, was converted to share space with a gifted and talented elementary school, 300 trainers and psychologists once located in the building were dispersed to 26 locations throughout the district. For months, thousands of student files sat in boxes, hampering the ability of staff to educate children properly.

Things aren't expected to return to normal until January 12, when the entire special-ed staff moves to an older DISD office building in Fair Park. Despite all of those challenges, Rosemarie Allen, DISD's associate superintendent for student support and special services, insists the district is getting on the right track. Reform is "non-negotiable," she says with enthusiasm.

Allen is a DISD survivor, and her story illuminates the past half-decade of turmoil in the district. Since her arrival in 1994, the special-education division has been put under her watch three times in seven years as new superintendents have appointed their own short-lived lieutenants. Longtime observers praise Allen's dedication, however, and are hopeful that the threat of state intervention will give her clout to finish the job. "We've got a 20-year-old system we're going to bring into the new millennium, and it's exciting," Allen says.

In theory, parents of disabled children also have a powerful ally in their fight for better education: a far-reaching federal law. Since 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has enumerated civil rights for disabled students who were once nearly excluded from education. The law calls for a free and appropriate public education for disabled children in the least restrictive environment.

Gradually, federal and state authorities have clarified and stepped up enforcement of the law by pushing states to comply. Although adequate funding is a concern, districts such as DISD are now finally catching up. Under fire from the federal government, the state is cracking down on out-of-compliance school districts. After years of inaction, the Texas Education Agency is demanding that DISD tackle its special-education woes.

Normally, the district can ignore such ultimatums, since consequences are rarely attached to them. But this time the state has spelled out a real penalty: loss of the district's accreditation and appointment of a special master.

In February of last year, TEA commissioner Jim Nelson appointed a monitor to oversee special education in Dallas, making Dallas the only large Texas city to receive such scrutiny. One particular trouble spot prompted especially close (and rare) TEA scrutiny: Since 1994, the agency has taken DISD to task for poor supervision of students in residential care facilities (RCFs) used by substance abusers, juvenile delinquents, and the most severely disabled.

In a February 10 letter to DISD chieftains, Nelson cited poor communication and record keeping as factors that precipitated a "systemic failure [by DISD] to ensure that students with disabilities living in RCFs are identified, evaluated, and appropriately served." There are only about 300 eligible students in such facilities, so it could be concluded that the TEA was addressing an isolated and forgettable problem.

Not so, however; Nelson made it clear his agency would also press for districtwide special-education reform, not just a cleanup at residential facilities.

The duties of monitor Cindy Michaels, former special-education director of Collin County, would also include "ensuring that all special-education corrective actions are complete and are being implemented" and "guiding the district to be in total compliance with state laws and federal regulations regarding special-education services." Nelson set a March 1, 2001, deadline for improvement. He also lowered the district's special-education compliance status to "Sanctions Imposed: Unresolved Corrective Action."

What if the district didn't fix its shortcomings by then? "In the event Dallas ISD has not successfully demonstrated compliance with all federal and state laws relating to special education by March 1, 2002," Nelson wrote in a follow-up October letter, "the district's accreditation rating will be lowered to 'Academically Unacceptable: Special Accreditation Investigation.'" Translation: The entire district will lose its accreditation if special education isn't repaired.

Nelson also warned that if there's no progress by March, he would take command of DISD's special-education department, an incredibly rare step for a state agency. "[I]t may be necessary," he said, "to review the role of the current special-education monitor...and to consider whether the role should be upgraded to a master to oversee the operation of the district's overall special-education program."

Will TEA keep its word and hold DISD accountable? It's likely the state will enforce the March deadline for fixing residential care facilities. But no one expects DISD to meet the March deadline for special education, which observers agree is an impossible mandate given the vastness of the problem.

Nevertheless, district leaders know TEA will be looking for strong evidence that DISD is mending its ways and heading toward a special-education rejuvenation: Trustee Kathleen Leos believes the state expects "drastic" improvement by then. "I don't think we'll have a master," says Leos, who represents Oak Lawn and Old East Dallas. "I would hope we continue with a monitor for a while."

It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Former Superintendent Waldemar Rojas, fired last August after too many fractious run-ins with the school board, was thought to be DISD's special-education savior. Advocates hoped the former head of New York City's special-education department would take swift steps to make inclusion of disabled students a reality. Yvonne Gonzalez, busted in 1997 for using district cash to buy home furniture, was also seen before her downfall as an innovator.

Alas, it was not to be. Rojas' and Gonzalez's tenures lasted only about a year each. Now, the school board is hoping its next superintendent--Mike Moses, former head of the agency now cracking the whip on DISD--will lead the district out of its predicament.

Despite DISD's long history of poor performance in special education, the state's threat to pull DISD's accreditation still came as a shock for many district leaders. They admit they weren't aware of the problem's magnitude. "Most of the board presumed things were being handled," says Roxan Staff, president of the Dallas school board. "A lot of school districts don't do special ed well," she adds.

If this sounds like an excuse, it is. But that doesn't make it less true. "Texas as a whole doesn't have a sterling reputation for providing services to the disabled," the Arc's Drew Dixon says. "Texas seems to struggle in all human services."

Some school trustees were conscious of the coming train wreck. Leos, a staunch supporter of special education, believes DISD is finally turning the corner after many stillborn efforts at reform. "It's been a long time coming," says Leos, who once asked federal education officials to investigate DISD. "The administration has lost money because of prior superintendents [who botched special education], but it has gotten so critical, superintendents no longer have a choice."

Leos hopes to improve the lot of disabled students on several fronts. "The district has to put more professionals, more money, more aligned efforts in making sure the educational needs of special-education students are met," she says. That means more classroom aides, adaptive equipment, and speech therapy are needed--or "whatever it takes to have the students' needs met," she declares. (There are limits, of course, dictated by cost. For example, DISD doesn't want to shell out for the full costs of individual nurses to accompany severely disabled students.)

But Leos isn't merely another do-gooder or policy wonk. To her, the issue is personal: At age 12, her son Marlowe ran a stop sign on his bicycle and suffered a catastrophic brain injury after a van knocked him off his bike headfirst onto the pavement. Miraculously, after near death and a year of inpatient treatment, Marlowe recovered and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School. Today, he's 23 and works at a fitness center in California but still suffers lapses in memory because of damage to his frontal lobe.

The harrowing experience jolted the Leos family. "It opened up my world," she says, "to the whole arena of what happens to families with children with special needs" and their need for different services from the education system. For instance, her son's memory problems made memorization and test taking difficult, so teachers accommodated him by allowing him extra time, tutoring, and access to notes; rather than conjure up facts, he completed essays and short answers on a computer.

The use of accommodations and technology to aid disabled students is cutting-edge stuff right now in the special-education field. Such ingenuity, however, isn't universal throughout DISD, critics complain. The problem stems from outdated philosophy, says the Arc's Dixon. "For years, we always thought of special education as a location, a room, and that's not right," he says. "Special education is a series of supports. Those supports could happen in a whole lot of locations."

To change the district's record on inclusion, Dixon says, regular-education teachers--who formerly came into contact with special-education students only rarely--must receive comprehensive training. But pressure to change longstanding practices must come from the very top, he says, to bring success. "We've got to get a stable administration that recognizes that every student of the district is a student of the district," Dixon says. "[Special education] is not a parallel education, but it's unified in the sense that every child has value."

Certainly, there is also a racial and ethnic dimension to DISD's special-education distress. According to the district's SpECS report for this school year, 13,837 of 160,477 students in the district, or 8.6 percent of the citywide total, are enrolled in special education. In contrast, 12.1 percent of students statewide have been diagnosed with disabilities, and this lower percentage of special-education students earns DISD a risk factor of three (out of four) from TEA.

Why is that flagged as a risk? State officials worry the deficit stems from a failure to properly diagnose Hispanic students, who make up a disproportionate 40 percent of special-education enrollment compared with 55 percent of the district population. (The dearth of Hispanic students in special education has made black and white children seem more numerous in the programs.)

Still, district officials are hesitant to begin rounding up Hispanic students for special education. They fear that overzealous diagnosis will result in children with poor English language skills being wrongly shuffled into special education. "We're really good about making sure this is a disability," says Jan Deaton, an area specialist in DISD's special-education division.

Mary Cardona is one activist trying to bridge barriers, linguistic and otherwise, that separate DISD's special-education system from the district's burgeoning Hispanic population. An activist-turned-DISD community outreach officer, she declines to fault administrators with shortchanging disabled Hispanic children. Shortages of bilingual staff "are everywhere," says Cardona, mother of Jorge, a 19-year-old with severe autism and mental retardation still eligible for school services.

Nonetheless, she sees a need for improved communication between Hispanic families and DISD. She became active when her son turned school age and she sought to obtain services for him. At first, her forays into district bureaucracy were greeted with unreturned phone calls and misinformation, but persistence paid off. "I'm very successful in cutting through that because I won't take no for an answer," she says. "You're going to find people who know what to do but won't do it."

Cardona, who speaks fluent English, later found other Hispanic parents in even worse shape. Because of the language barrier, they weren't getting information about special education and referrals. So 12 years ago, she formed Padres Latinos Ayudando a Niños Especiales, or PLANES (in English, Latino Parents Helping Children With Special Needs).

PLANES counts about 60 members who meet every month. Cardona and other parents share names and contacts and help parents new to the system navigate the complex process and become advocates for their children. The group fulfills several roles: It's a social outlet for disabled children and their families, as well as a district watchdog that presses for inclusion of disabled students and Spanish translations of resource materials.

If more than a decade of advocacy has convinced Cardona of anything, it's that change comes from the top. But she stresses that parents must also play a crucial role in reform efforts. "Parents not only have rights, but responsibilities," she says. "They must tell teachers about changes at home, such as deaths in the family, behavior changes, and changes in medication. A lot of times, we can't just blame the school."

Meanwhile, the district realizes its work is cut out for it. Associate Superintendent Allen describes her formidable duty as "putting Humpty Dumpty back together again." Reducing the district's percentage of disabled children not in the "least restrictive environment" from 60 percent to 30 percent is the foremost goal. Yet that is easier said than done. "Quite frankly, regular ed doesn't feel that they are equipped, that they have the skills necessary, to serve these students," she says.

To meet the challenge, Allen has assembled District Effectiveness and Compliance (DEC) teams and dispatched them to each school to train teachers in new procedures. Summer is expected to be an especially busy time for the DEC teams, which consist of 350 staff members and target both regular- and special-education teachers. Special-education teachers, no longer only teaching children in isolated settings, are now working with regular-education teachers to modify instruction and sometimes trade off teaching duties.

Allen recites a litany of different strategies schools can employ to mainstream their disabled students into regular instruction: grouping of students, direct instruction (a highly scripted instructional technique), peer tutors, longer time allotted for homework, different testing strategies, more visual material, and technology devices such as calculators and tape recorders.

All of it means a lot of work for teachers accustomed to special-education students being someone else's problem. And there is fear of a backlash from regular-education parents if, as a result of such mixed classrooms, less attention is paid to their offspring or instruction is watered down to the level of the slowest students. But Allen is certain good training can overcome those obstacles and keep curriculum rigorous. "With the right philosophy and experience," she says, "we know regular-ed students can benefit."

Marco Gomez's 10-page Individual Education Plan illuminates the modest but meaningful goals held for people facing such barriers and the challenges in educating such people. On one page, a box marked "annual goal" reads, "increase self-care abilities." Objectives in that category include "independently scoop with spoon or spear with fork during last stage of meal" and "brush teeth and expel liquid with adult verbal prompting."

Like other students, Marco is graded for his achievements. In nearly every category, Marco has received a grade of 70 percent mastery.

On a page that rates Marco's progress toward behavioral benchmarks, he earns accolades for smooth transitioning "from one activity to the next with adult prompting and supervision during the school day in seven of 10 changes." This isn't surprising, considering Marco's sweet-tempered nature. On the bottom of the page, a note reads: "Over the last month, this has become a strong area for Marco."

Midway through the IEP document, cognitive skills are judged. That area includes completing games: puzzles, pegboards, coloring, and turning on a radio are all seen as steps to enhance Marco's developmental growth. Another page assesses Marco's talent for sports. The objectives include tossing softballs to a partner, pushing balls down a bowling ramp, and participating in rhythm activities.

Sitting in the den area of her house, Maria Gomez talks about Marco's daily regimen at school while he takes turns rummaging through a closet for balloons, playing with a black model horse, and overturning buckets of toys to locate other playthings. "He likes to share his toys," Maria says.

It was this room that was converted to a small classroom the year Marco was tutored at home. How Marco ended up with an individual tutor is another story. It happened when he moved from elementary school to middle school. While Marco enjoyed elementary school, he would come home from middle school distraught, a big departure from his normal behavior. Maria quickly noticed bruises on her son's legs, injuries inflicted by an inept assistant teacher who was later dismissed.

"I made a big scandal," she remembers. "I went to the district office and said, 'I'm not leaving here until I talk to the superintendent, because this cannot be happening to my child.'" She considered filing a lawsuit, but did not. Instead, Marco was tutored at home for a year. The incident, she said, resulted in DISD's setting up an abuse hotline for special-education students.

These days, Marco is back in school and enjoying music, physical education, and field trips. While Maria complains about the lack of therapy and vocational training, she praises Marco's in-school aide as "a very nice person who knows how to work with him." She thinks he is getting better at drinking from a glass, and she notes that he even wipes his chin after a meal. But she still sees many other problems. "Too many kids, not enough staff," she says. "They cannot help the children."

Day to day, Marco enjoys the people he meets and the places where he plays and learns. He's not aware that with the right training he could make more progress in the eating or dressing department. But the idea that more intensive, yet unavailable, therapy could aid Marco torments his mother. "I'd like for Marco to develop his living skills," she says, "because I'm aware I may be gone one day."

If the district is to succeed in its special-education reform, its program will have to more closely resemble that of Franklin Middle School in North Dallas. Franklin Principal Johnlyn Mitchell prefers to keep mum about her school's special-education program, though. Even though Franklin is known for a solid autism program, advertising the matter is a recipe for disaster. That's because when word gets out that a school does special education well, anxious parents pack up and move there.

The results are overcrowding and decline. "Y'all quit telling people about us, because we can't take any more children," she says with a smile, sitting in her office during the hectic break between class periods.

Despite that admonition, Mitchell is proud of her school's special-education program, especially the lengths school staff members go to in providing accommodations for children with impairments. For instance, she says, voice-activated computers.

There are about 130 children diagnosed with disabilities at Franklin, says Mitchell, who believes that most of them can be mainstreamed into regular education. One major misconception of special education, she says, is that it consists mostly of mentally disabled children. But the principal recalls a bright child who had difficulty concentrating on the small multiple-choice bubbles used in standardized tests and a regional math and science derby. So teachers at Franklin got creative. "We had to enlarge the Scantron sheets," Mitchell says. "Probably, this kid would not have been able to compete in the math and science competition" were it not for the accommodation. "We are becoming more and more sophisticated," she says.

Mitchell leads me down the maze of hallways to a room where two DEC team members are conducting a training session for about 10 special-education teachers. Here Jan Deaton, the area specialist, is telling instructors to consider every part of a disability when mapping out a disabled child's education plan. If a seventh-grade student reads at a second-grade level, that deficit will affect science, social studies, and math, she says.

Then she offers a cautionary tale of how not to serve a disabled child. "If there's a child who runs all over town to the movies and to his grandmother's house," Deaton says, "and then we put him in a little yellow bus that stigmatizes him, be careful doing that." She exhorts the need for technology to aid disabled students. "DISD offers less than average in [special education] technology statewide," she says. "But technology could be a squishy pencil for a child who doesn't grip well. It could be a slanted desktop."

After Deaton, another staff member talks about the necessity of preparing disabled students for independent living--even down to the art of dressing for an interview. "They've got to work," he says. "It's the real world." UPS, Target, and OfficeMax are companies that have hired DISD special-education students in the past, he says.

Afterward, I tell Deaton I'd like to visit a class where children with disabilities are mainstreamed into regular education, but she tells me I would be bored. When people in the past made the same request, Deaton recalls, she would "say OK and take them to a class. They'd say, 'Which are the special-education kids?'" Such invisibility, she says, is the whole point of inclusion. "We just don't put a brand on their forehead."


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