All Together Now?

It's a Friday morning at Monte del Sol Charter School, and the compact classroom buzzes with energy. A group of boys, all seventh-graders, work on projects under the watchful eye of a teacher. One reads, another paints a picture.

The place is lively, raucous, but open and inviting. The day before, the class didn't function nearly as well. Yesterday, things got ugly. David, a round-faced, outgoing boy with dark, close-cropped hair, jokes and laughs, a reading primer on the table before him. The day before, he was the first one sent to the principal's office. It was over a test, a writing test. An assessment test. But others soon followed. It mushroomed into a full-scale revolt.

"He has difficulty writing. It was very upsetting to him," says his teacher, Nancy Lee Marquis. "Everyone was very disruptive. They all just lost it."

Welcome to ground zero for education reform in America, spearheaded by the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act. The sweeping law, passed by Congress in 2001, demands that 99 percent of all students, regardless of their capacity to learn or speak the English language, be proficient in core academic subjects such as math, science and writing by the year 2014.

The tool for determining proficiency is the students' performance on a battery of standardized tests matched against state and federal standards. There are no separate standards for students such as the boys in this class at Monte del Sol. This is special ed, special "services" as they like to call it here. Kids who are set off, pulled out. Their disabilities run the gamut – from severe cognitive disabilities like autism to milder ones like dyslexia. These students each have individualized education plans tailored to their learning needs. The plans, created by a committee of teachers, parents and often the students themselves, set goals and measure progress. For the federal government, that's no longer good enough. Now, special-ed students are to be treated just like everyone else.

"When it was designed, it sounded great," says Reginald Felton, a special-education advocate with the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Virginia. "As you begin operating this stuff, that's when you run into problems."

In many ways, treating special-needs students the same as the rest of the population follows an education trend that has been practiced for several years. The practice, labeled "inclusion," is based on the consensus among education experts that it benefits the learning-disabled child – particularly socially. After all, it wasn't that long ago that children with learning issues were warehoused entirely away from other students, transported on separate buses and subjected to an entirely alternative curriculum. School districts kept them at arm's length and underfunded. They were separate and unequal.

But some in the special-education community wonder now if there can be too much of a good thing. In the name of inclusion and student achievement, No Child Left Behind takes that healthy educational trend one step further by dismissing the learning barriers that exist between children. Schools will be graded as performing or non-performing based on their aggregate test scores – with no adjustment made for the learning disabled or those who speak English as a second language. Failing schools will be subject to an entire range of government punishment. Special-education teachers, too, face a harsher future – one that requires increased certification without any corresponding pay raise, and one where any advancement they can make will be tied to their students' test scores.

"I could see in 10 years, the difference between special ed and regular ed won't be there anymore," says Michael Webb, a special-education teacher at Monte del Sol who instructs alongside another teacher in classes that combine special-and general-education students. "It hasn't been thought out very well how it's going to work. It really is an experiment."

It's making some in the special-education community in Santa Fe nervous about the future of their charges.

"I believe in believing in students, but the accountability requirement in No Child Left Behind is destroying what it is intended to do," says Tricia Penn, the special-education coordinator for the Santa Fe Public Schools. The law, she says, requires that special-needs students "should make the same progress as other children, but if they make the same progress as other children, they wouldn't need special services."

The ramifications of the No Child Left Behind Act for New Mexico, and particularly Santa Fe, are numerous and potentially extreme. It's a state filled with minority students, immigrant students and students diagnosed with learning disabilities. The state Public Education Department estimates that 17 percent of all students in the state require some form of special education.

"We have a very diverse community of learners," says Sam Howarth, the department's director of special ed. "I think we are probably the most diverse state in the nation." Santa Fe Public Schools report 14 percent of their students need special services.

The testing requirements passed by Congress and adopted by the state demand that all but 1 percent of the most cognitively disabled be tested in math, English and, ultimately, science on an annual basis. Results will be broken down not only by school, but also by ethnicity, immigration status and special needs. Low marks in any of the categories could land the school in hot water.

A failure "can be counted three times," says Drew Allbritten, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia-based Council for Exceptional Children, a special-education advocacy group. "You can fail once for your grade level, twice because you're Hispanic and three times because you're an immigrant."

Schools can be performing well in some areas, but still face sanctions due to slower progress in others. Ultimately, a failing public school can be restructured as a charter school, taken over by a private corporation or simply closed outright. Teachers can be transferred or fired. Federal funds can be withheld or reassigned. Most important, parents can pull their children and place them in other schools. Once a school takes on heavy water, there will be little that can be done.

"By painting the schools as declining in performance, you negatively affect confidence in public schools," says Felton, of the National School Boards Association.

When those test scores aren't up to snuff, administrators and principals will be looking for something to blame. Special-education advocates worry that learning-disabled children will be the scapegoats.

"The backlash. I am concerned about that," Penn says. "I'm afraid this will come back and kick us and they'll resent us again."

Felton, whose association monitors districts nationwide, has heard as much from schools that aren't achieving passing grades. He says administrators become defensive and seek ways to explain themselves.

"Basically, they're saying that if not for these kids, our schools would have made it," he says.

In another special-education class at Monte del Sol, three ninth-graders, Natasha, Ben and Kendra, work quietly together on a card game that teaches students geometry by having them assemble geometric designs out of plastic shapes. They hold a shared view when it comes to standardized tests: "They suck."

"It's so stupid," Ben says. "We don't learn anything."

"Some of us just don't take tests well," Natasha says. "It grades us on how well we take a test, not on how smart we are."

The three students are part of a skyrocketing special-education population at Monte del Sol. Current estimates have the number of students who require special instruction at the southern Santa Fe County charter school at 42 percent – three times the average in the Santa Fe Public Schools. Of its 300 students, 125 are in a special-ed program. As a charter school, Monte del Sol can attract students from all over the county.

In the area of special education, the school seems to be especially magnetic. The numbers have risen steadily during its four-year existence. That alone can be worrisome in the face of No Child Left Behind. More special-education students can often equal lower test scores. According to statistics provided by the Santa Fe Public Schools for the 2001-2002 school year, students with disabilities attending the district's four middle schools and two high schools scored significantly lower than the national average for similar students.

"We have a fair amount of students who will not do well in these tests," says Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Bernalillo, an educator who is concerned about the federal requirements. "They'll bring the entire school down. The consequences are pretty extreme." Of a place like Monte del Sol, with its high percentage of special-needs students, she says, "They'll be hammered."

Allbritten, of the Council for Exceptional Children, believes the student's individualized education program (IEP) is a more valid tool for measuring the performance of special-ed students than standardized tests.

"Why would you give someone with a third-grade reading level an eighth-grade test when you know they are going to fail?" he says.

The focus of special education, he says, should be on making sure special-education students are ready to face the world beyond graduation – something standardized tests don't measure.

According to the US Department of Education, students with disabilities drop out of school at three to four times the rate of general-education students. Students who graduate without job skills, he says, end up in the social welfare net at a cost 10 times greater than the money it would take to pay for vocational education while in public schools.

"We can help them become members of society," he says. "I want to make sure we're dealing with the achievement part, not just accountability part."

The Santa Fe school district – like the rest of New Mexico – struggles with placing special-education students in the mainstream of general education. According to the state Public Education Department, the state ranks dead last among all 50 states in placing kids in the federally required "least restrictive environment." Sixty percent of special education students in the district are excluded from general-education classes and in some schools, the figure runs as high as 80 percent. In effect, with No Child Left Behind, the federal government is upping the ante before New Mexico has even been able to secure a seat at the table.

"New Mexico segregates kids with disabilities," says Howarth, of the state education department. "Proficiency is a massive goal and notion."

It's why parents like Bernadette LeRouge are continually frustrated. The mother of a 14-year-old Santa Fe Public Schools student with Down Syndrome, LeRouge says she has watched with mounting anger as her child has been increasingly separated from the mainstream after being largely included with regular students in elementary school. Earlier this year, she took advantage of the school-transfer provisions contained in the No Child Left Behind Act to transfer her daughter from Ortiz Middle School to DeVargas.

"They dumped my daughter into a special-ed classroom," LeRouge says. "She was not treated appropriately."

Ruthanne Greeley, a spokesperson for the district, says LeRouge's daughter was integrated into general-education classes at Ortiz for all but two subjects, and had a teaching assistant assigned to her needs. "Our goal is always to create the most successful environment for the student," Greeley says.

The Santa Fe schools have long struggled with the particular challenge of special education. Horror stories involving ignored children and staff shortages have been frequent and public. LeRouge says the reputation is deserved.

"Our Santa Fe public schools do not support inclusion," she says. "There are not enough teachers to support it."

Another Santa Fe Schools parent, Donna Quintana, the mother of a third-grader with cerebral palsy, says she, too, has encountered frustration with the care her son has received. But she is less confident about the tests. This week, her son will take the Terra Nova standardized test for the first time. Quintana says he has no learning disability, but doesn't write well.

"There should be a special test for the special-needs children," she says. "Right now, it's a basic test for all the kids. They treat them all the same way."

These parents demonstrate there isn't a consensus when it comes to the testing provisions of No Child Left Behind. LeRouge welcomes the assessments – although her child won't have to take the standardized test, but an alternative one. She believes learning-disabled children "should be able to show progress. She may not read at the seventh-grade level, but she can show progress. We need to make teachers accountable."

If there is a single profession No Child Left Behind targets, it is teachers. The complaints of the National Education Association about No Child Left Behind led US Secretary of Education Rod Paige last month to label the union "a terrorist organization."

Special-education instructors are no exception. Ultimately, under the licensing system adopted by the New Mexico Legislature along federal guidelines, teacher pay will be tied to classroom performance on tests. For special-ed instructors, that's particularly problematic and one reason for the talented ones to look to teach something else – or escape the profession altogether.

"If you're a special-education teacher and your kids are not performing at the same rate as the other kids and your job is on the line, who would want to stay in the field?" says Tricia Penn.

Penn stands in her office at the district's administrative office building in Santa Fe. She has been in the special-education field for 36 years, culminating in her position as the head of the district's special-ed programs. She was idealistic enough to enter the profession because of the Helen Keller biopic The Miracle Worker. Now, she sounds like she needs a few miracles herself.

She throws a thick binder on the table – an instruction manual for preparing a proper individualized education program (IEP) for special-education students. It looks like a city phone book.

"We don't have the resources, but we're getting all of the regulations," Penn says. "I'm so tired of paperwork."

Historically, the IEP has been the heart of special ed. Tailored for each student, it's designed to be regularly reviewed and revised. The IEP and its attendant paperwork consume much of any special-education teacher's life. For 25 years it was judged sufficient to monitor the development of learning-disabled students. Now, it will take a backseat to standardized tests as an evaluation tool – although the paperwork will remain. But paperwork isn't the only hassle for special-education teachers. No Child Left Behind requires that children be taught by "highly qualified teachers."

In New Mexico, that means that prospective high-school instructors will have to be certified not only in the core subjects they teach, but in special-education instruction as well. Soon, the district must hire teachers who are double- or triple-certified. Right now, "they don't exist," Penn says.

The district can't hire all of the special-education teachers or teacher's aides it needs. Special-ed instructors make no more money than regular teachers, despite the expertise they offer and the paperwork through which they must wade. As a result, the district must contract out for services such as speech pathology at a rate far above a teacher's hourly pay. The No Child requirements will worsen the situation by increasing teacher-certification requirements without providing the federal funds to attract the qualified teachers, she says.

"Nothing has been done to ensure qualified personnel," Penn says of the law. "All of this was supposed to be about the kids. If you cared about the kids, you would provide qualified personnel. This isn't child-centered."

Moreover, No Child Left Behind requires school districts to inform parents if their children aren't taught by a "highly qualified teacher" for longer than four weeks. In an area that's only expanding as fertile ground for lawsuits, that's an unwelcome development for administrators and teachers.

Parents disappointed in the academic progress of their children are going to court in increasing numbers. There were 20 complaints filed against school districts in New Mexico over special education during the 2001-2002 school year, with double that number the year following and a likelihood of it doubling again during this school year. The Santa Fe Public Schools has been sued five times over special education since 1998.

"The district's always on the defensive," Penn says.

Ruth Luckasson, who coordinates the special-education program at the University of New Mexico's School of Education, estimates more than 500 special-education teachers are working in the state right now without special-ed certification. They're going to need licenses – and soon. Already, the classes at UNM are packed.

"We need more special-ed faculty," she says. "If we could offer more courses, we'd have more students in them. The teachers aren't going to have a choice and the schools aren't going to have a choice."

Concerns over the rigorous federal requirements contained in the law have led some states to question whether the cure for problem schools is worse than the disease. In February, the Republican-dominated Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution asking Congress to allow states to opt out of No Child Left Behind if they already had their own assessment and accountability program in place.

The resolution said the law "represents one of the most sweeping intrusions into state and local control of education in the history of the United States" and that it will cost "literally millions of dollars that Virginia does not have."

In January, an education panel of the Utah legislature voted unanimously to exempt Utah from the act. The US Department of Education says both states will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds if they choose not to follow the program's requirements. The costs are raising concerns in New Mexico as well. Before the recently concluded session of the state Legislature, a resolution passed by the Legislative Education Study Committee requested that the federal government fully fund the requirements of the law.

"The federal government isn't coming through with the money it promised for No Child Left Behind," says Rep. Stewart, who sponsored the resolution approved by the LESC.

The state's deputy secretary of education, Kurt Steinhaus, says the State isn't sure exactly how much it will cost New Mexico to implement the act, but the department is working on the answer.

(Utah estimates its cost to eventually lie between $200 million and $600 million; right now, New Mexico receives about $300 million in federal education funds generally.)

Steinhaus says the department is "paying very close attention" to the events in Utah and Virginia.

Tricia Penn has a quote from Stephen Covey on an erasable board in her office. It says: One thing's for sure: If we keep doing what we're doing, we're going to keep getting what we're getting.

And that sums up the problem with educational reform. No one ever favors the status quo, but changing a culture can be an even tougher sell. At Monte del Sol Charter School, which prides itself on trying to navigate a different course in educating students, teachers are facing the prospect of sacrificing some of that innovation in favor of ensuring that their special-ed students can pass their assessment tests.

"If they're not at the point that we feel they're ready for the academics, we'll have to restructure things," says the school's special-education coordinator, Mary Ellen Neal. "It's always been a struggle. Do you teach to the test or teach to the needs?"

She watches her three students laugh as they take turns in the geometry card game.

"We all need to be held accountable," she says. "But this doesn't take into account the student who does not test well. It's going to be a real challenge."

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