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California Project Links Spec.-Ed., Regular Teachers

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In the most ambitious experiment of its kind to date, California school officials are recruiting 100 schools for a controversial pilot program in which special educators and regular classroom teachers will work together to serve every student who has trouble learning.

The new program was detailed in a draft plan being circulated this month by the state education department.

With regular and special educators working in tandem, state officials contend, some students with disabilities may be able to avoid the stigmatizing labels that come with special education.

In addition, they say, schools may be able to do a better job of serving the growing number of students who have trouble learning but do not have a disability that qualifies them for special education.

Many such students are inadequately served now, state school officials said last week, because they either do not qualify for any kind of special help or have been inappropriately placed in special education.

"Regular and special educators must share responsibility for these students," Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig said in the draft plan, entitled "The Challenge for the '90's: The California Framework for Special Education Programs and Services."

"The challenge," Mr. Honig added, "is to create a unified educational system" for serving all children.

The plan has received mixed reviews so far. Skeptics have said they fear the kinds of programs Mr. Honig has in mind will result in a "watering down" of services for handicapped students. And teachers have questioned whether adequate time and resources would be set aside to make such a massive undertaking work.

'Regular-Education Initiative'

The concept of collaboration between regular education and special education is rooted in a controversial movement in special education known as the "regular-education initiative." Its proponents contend that mildly handicapped students should be taught entirely in the regular classroom, rather than being pulled out of class for special help.

Despite much encouragement from federal special-education officials in recent years, only a few states have experimented with the idea. None have undertaken pilot programs on the scale of California's.

In addition to the 100 schools selected this year to participate in the project, 100 more will be chosen next year.

And, if the pilots are successful, state school officials said they plan to go to the legislature in 1993 and push for changes in special-education law that will enable schools across the state to undertake similar efforts.

Patrick Campbell, the state director of special education, said California's plan draws on some of the basic concepts of the "regular-education initiative," but is also broader and more detailed in scope.

"We're trying to change the whole system rather than part of it," he said.

In the area of special-education screening, for example, Mr. Campbell said the pilot schools would be required to set up interdisciplinary "student study teams" to intervene early and come up with strategies to help students succeed in the regular classroom.

"Children experiencing difficulty could get direct intervention from reading specialists, or psychologists," he explained.

The pilot schools would also be encouraged to find ways to break away from the state's traditional reliance on intelligence tests to determine if a student is eligible for special education.

"We'll want regular educators to be doing a lot more documenting of what's going on in the classroom," he said.

With such data, the psychologists doing the testing could change their focus to a student's individual learning style, he said.

The pilot schools would also have to provide the same "core curriculum" for both handicapped and nonhandicapped students. Mr. Campbell said the curriculum should differ only for the most severely handicapped students who must concentrate on how to live independently or hold a job.

"So much of special education is drill and practice," he said. "I'm not sure we stretch these kids enough."

The project also calls for the department to develop a set of "quality indicators" and testing standards to gauge the effectiveness of school special-education programs.

Teachers will be encouraged to work together in the regular classroom in a variety of ways, Mr. Campbell said, some of which might require waiving state regulations to allow special educators to work with nonhandicapped students.

A resource specialist, for example, might come into the classroom and work with all the children who have trouble learning, including unidentified special-education students.

"She could model what she's doing for the teacher--show her how to modify the curriculum for those kids," Mr. Campbell explained.

Officials plan to select the first 100 schools for the program in April. The state education department will provide small grants--about $5,000 to $10,000 each--to help the schools train staff members to take on their expanded roles.

State school officials also will conduct training seminars and workshops throughout the year.

A number of educators have praised the plan, calling it a much needed reform.

But criticism of the idea has come from the groups most affected by it--the California Teachers Association and the state branch of the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. About half of California's special-education students are learning disabled.

Groups' Criticism

The teachers' groups warned that the project could overburden California's teachers, who are already struggling to deal with large class sizes and an increasingly diverse student population.

"Where does the state allow for the costs of release time to meet and plan for this?" said Ed Foglia, the CTA president.

Mary Golembesky, president of ACLD-California, said her concern was the use of special-education resources for nondisabled students.

"We're afraid that the state is watering down what we've got in special education at a time when there's already a shortage of resource specialists and special educators," she said.

But Mr. Campbell said state officials would be meeting with those groups soon in an effort to work out their concerns.

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