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Judge Approves Plan To Revamp Spec.-Ed. Programs in Boston

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Signaling an end to a 17-year-old lawsuit against the Boston school system, a Massachusetts judge has approved a major reorganization of the district's troubled special-education programs.

With Superior Court Judge Catherine A. White's approval of the plan late last month, the Boston school system joins a handful of districts nationwide seeking to develop a more comprehensive and unified approach to teaching both regular and special-education students.

Under the plan, principals will be in charge of the education of all the students in their buildings, not just those who are nondisabled, and the district's current special-education bureaucracy will be dismantled.

Three assistant superintendents who oversee academic matters will also oversee special-education programs on a districtwide basis. Currently, special-education programs are operated as a separate system.

"It's shifting the responsibility to schools where people should have the greatest knowledge of students and how best to serve them,'' Lois Harrison-Jones, the city school superintendent, said.

Moreover, Ms. Harrison-Jones and other school officials added, the plan is designed to increase the schools' capacities to serve those children by making it easier for schools to integrate regular-education and special-education services.

"I don't think any court case has gotten this involved in issues of quality and integration,'' said Susan F. Cole, a lawyer for the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, which represents the parents of disabled students who brought the 1976 lawsuit. "The court recognized that the only way to solve the service-delivery problems was to integrate.''

Three-Year Plan

Under the current system, Ms. Cole said, "evaluation team leaders'' in each school building are in charge of insuring that students receive adequate services. Special-education services are centrally administered by a department headed by a special-education director.

But, as is the case in most large districts, there is little coordination between the special-education and regular-education systems.

In Boston, 13,500 disabled students are served through the special-education system, and the regular-education system serves most of the other 45,000 students in the district.

Under the new plan, which is scheduled to be implemented over three years, three assistant superintendents will oversee special-education programs at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. A new data-management system will be developed so principals can keep track of what is happening to students in their own buildings rather than having to wait for reports from the central administration.

To foster integration of disabled students at the school level, the district will spend $625,000 next year to provide training for principals, teachers, special educators, counselors, and other school staff members, as well as parents, on their new roles in the system.

And it recommends that school officials look for ways for special-education funds to follow students, rather than programs, and to set outcomes for measuring students' progress in special education.

Frank Fornaro, the project manager for the plan, said the district will begin to provide training this summer for staff members at 20 of the district's more than 100 schools.

"By the end of three years,'' he said, "we'll have the whole system up and running.''

The changes in Boston come as a growing number of schools and districts nationwide are looking at ways to integrate more disabled students in classrooms with their nondisabled peers.

The plan stops short, however, of mandating that all disabled pupils be placed in regular classrooms all the time.

However, Mr. Fornaro, a former principal of an elementary school that has worked more than three years to integrate its disabled pupils, added, "the goal of the plan is to diminish the numbers of students who are in separate placements each year.''

"We know now that special education doesn't exist independent of regular education,'' said Lou Brown, a nationally known special-education professor at the University of Wisconsin who will be serving on a steering committee set up to advise the school system as it implements the changes.

"I'm not interested in going to Boston to improve their special services,'' he said. "I'm interested in improving services for all children.''

"If we had settled this case on what was the problem 17 years ago, to me, it wouldn't mean much of a change in the nature and quality of services for children with disabilities,'' Mr. Brown added.

History of Hostility

The school system's special-education programs have been operating under a court order since 1976 after a group of parents filed suit claiming their children were not receiving adequate special-education services. The court found, among other problems, that many students referred for special education encountered long delays in receiving services or were being unnecessarily segregated in special programs.

In the intervening years, the case, known as Derek Allen v. Paul Parks, has had a long and contentious history.

State school officials twice threatened to withhold funds for the city's special-education programs. And, last year, the plaintiffs in the case filed a motion to put the district's special-education programs into receivership because of continuing noncompliance with special-education regulations.

School officials said they expect the plan, which was developed by three outside consultants last year, will finally put an end to the court battle.

"Everybody, for the first time in 17 years, is on the same page,'' said Elliot Feldman, the district's senior officer for special education.

The Boston school board also unanimously approved the plan earlier last month. Ms. Harrison-Jones, Mayor Raymond L. Flynn of Boston, and the parents and lawyers involved in the case held a rare joint news conference on April 30 to announce Judge White's approval of the plan.

David Rostetter, one of the consultants who developed the plan, cautioned, however, that the changes were still a long way from being implemented. For example, he noted, the three assistant superintendents who will oversee special education under the new plan have not yet been named, and the district is in the midst of a wider reorganization.

"There are serious questions about the capacity of the Boston public schools' administration to follow through on all of this,'' he said.

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