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Q&A: Leading 'Step 2' for Special Education

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Robert R. Davila was sworn in as the Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services on July 31.

A former vice president at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., Mr. Davila is the first deaf individual and the first Hispanic to assume the department post. He succeeds Madeleine C. Will, whose six-year tenure in the job was marked by controversy.

Under Ms. Will, the office was criticized for poor management--particularly with respect to its job of monitoring state special-education programs.

Ms. Will also elicited both praise and criticism for her advocacy of the "regular-education initiative"--a movement to teach children with mild learning problems entirely in regular classrooms, rather than pulling them out for help in special-education "resource" rooms. Critics said they feared that school districts would move too quickly to return handicapped children to regular classrooms without providing them with needed support services.

Against that backdrop, special educators, advocates, and parents of handicapped children are watching Mr. Davila's performance closely. The following interview with Mr. Davila was conducted, with the aid of a sign-language interpreter, by Staff Writer Debra Viadero.


You are a product of special education. What are your own experiences in the field, and how did they shape your philosophy of special education?

I grew up in a time when special education was very special, meaning that it was a separate system removed from the mainstream. I lost my hearing when I was 10 years old. One of the most positive things that happened to me at that time was that there was very little delay in placing me in a special school. And I received the help I needed because I was profoundly deaf.

I grew up in a little town north of San Diego, and the only regular-school programs at the time were too far away for me to attend. So I had to go to school in San Francisco. My elementary and secondary education was in a residential school for the deaf. And, after I graduated from high school, I came to Gallaudet to do my undergraduate study because, at the time, that was the only postsecondary opportunity for deaf people.

I became a high-school math teacher. I got a job in New York [at the New York School for the Deaf], where I thought I would work for a few years to get some experience. I stayed for 14.

As a teacher, I had to be certified like everyone else, so I went on with my graduate training. I took a master's in special education at City University of New York. I also took a lot of summer courses in diverse places. Later, I went to Syracuse University for my doctorate.

All my graduate training was in integrated settings. And those were the years when there were no support services for disabled graduate students. The way I survived was to find a good note-taker, sit next to that person, and copy the notes. I'd invariably look for a nun. They take the best notes.

One point I want to make with this story is that there are misconceptions about integrated settings as they relate to hearing-impaired students. There is a mistaken notion that deaf people have segregated themselves and set themselves apart from the general community. It isn't true. When we're talking about the deaf community, we're talking about a concept--not a physical location.

All of the preparation that I received when I was growing up was geared to one goal, and that was to prepare me for life in the natural community with people who hear. A testimony to the success of that effort is the fact that, by the time I was an adult, I was able to function successfully in graduate school--even though I had not actually had the experience of having been in an integrated setting before that.


Do you plan to continue Ms. Will's initiatives on supported employment for handicapped people and on easing the transition from high school to work for young people with disabilities?

So many of the initiatives that Ms. Will began were not necessarily hers only. I shouldn't say this because she had a role in providing leadership. But she was the recipient of good input from a variety of sources. So I think that the initiatives that were in place then were initiatives that are needed. These will be supported and continued.

Of course, we need to go to step two in the process. Back in 1975, when pl 94-142 [The Education For All Handicapped Children Act] was enacted, the bottom-line goal was access to a free and appropriate education. We are past that now.

What we need to do now is to ensure quality. We need to make sure that the services that are needed to support disabled individuals are provided and that they are provided by qualified persons.

I would like to see the supportive and competitive employment initiatives continue because I think the results coming from those programs are very good.

Recent data indicate that we have a serious shortage of trained personnel to provide special-education services. That requires increased support and attention.

The handicapped infant and toddler program will be important. The sooner we can provide support to a child who is disabled and to the family--that will be an important contributing element to the development of the child.

I would also like to see continued and increased emphasis on the application of technology for the disabled. Applications of communications technology for persons who are deaf, for example, have been tre8mendous.

And, finally, the transition from high-school years to employment in the community continues to be a great concern, especially for families who have pulled out of the system and no longer have that kind of support. We need to make that kind of programming available for young people who are disabled, including four-year university and college programs.


A lot of special educators have been concerned that the federal government was moving too far, too fast to embrace the "regular-education initiative," and many said they feared that a lot of children would be dumped back in regular classrooms without the necessary supports. What do you think of that concept?

If, in truth, children have been dumped in regular classrooms without any support for either the child or the teacher or other children in the classroom, that would hardly be an initiative. I've said that before. I meant that.

There's a lot of work to be done, and all of the responsibility does not fall on the federal government alone. There has to be a shared responsibility between local school districts, the states, and the federal government.


What kind of priority will you give this issue?

In order for it to be implemented, the initiative will take some time. There will probably be some young disabled people who will be integrated sooner than others, depending on the nature of the disability and the support services needed. Again, it's a situation where we're dealing with individual needs in making decisions for a placement that is based on the assessed needs of the individual.


It's no secret that there have been management problems at osers in the past. The General Accounting Office, in fact, will soon release a study detailing many of those concerns. (See related story on page 18.) What plans to you have for correcting these problems?

Basically, what the report says is that there wasn't enough input and involvement by program personnel in goal-setting for the division. I will manage it differently because I have always managed very openly and have involved people in the process of managing at all levels.

The report says that in management, over all, there was too much micromanagement, and many decisions were made in the assistant secretary's office. That's not my style, either. I incorporate a management-team approach in the things that I do.

The criticism relating to human-resources management was that there were too many open positions and that created a manpower shortage. And, on top of that, there were too many middle managers in acting positions. We have already started to make those changes by filling positions. We assure that we will have every position that is available filled, and we will make permanent appointments to key management positions.

There were complaints about the cycle of monitoring. Often, reports of site visits were not prepared on a timely basis. Judy Schrag [who heads the office of special-education programs, a division of osers] and I are giving the monitoring function high priority.

We intend to set up another monitoring team to permit us to get into the regular cycle of visiting, monitoring, and reporting. We need a fifth team because now the monitoring load is more than the present teams can handle.

One advantage that we had from the first day is that we had an entirely new management team. Everyone, including myself, comes with a lot of management experience.


In addition to continuing Ms. Will's initiatives, do you plan to pursue some of your own?

One important thing will be to identify an appropriate role and place for special education in some of the new education-reform initiatives. For example, the initiative of "choice." What does that mean for special education? Magnet schools? An emphasis on excellence?

There are a lot of things that are geared for students at risk and, by and large, disabled students are also at risk. They also deserve and need quality education. We need to consider carefully how the major initiatives under development will address the needs of all at-risk students, [especially] the needs of students in need of special education.

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