Disruptive Spec. Ed. Students Get Own School

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Rutland, Vt.

A few minutes after 9 a.m., the boisterous students begin to arrive at Success School. Bustling through the front doors, they shout greetings to the teachers and counselors and head down the dim hallway, tracking in snow and mud from the leftover winter landscape.

But that's where any similarity to a typical middle or high school ends. The students, who barely outnumber this school's teachers and aides, are part of one Vermont district's experiment to help students whose behavior keeps them from learning in traditional classes.

Most of the students here have emotional and behavioral problems; some have learning disabilities as well. Each has an individualized education program that spells out the special education services he or she needs.

These are the students who can make school administrators weary. Left in a regular classroom, their behavior can intimidate teachers and cause so much disruption that other students cannot learn. If placed in a private school, their education can cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars more than it costs to leave them in regular classes.

Congress, too, is struggling with those issues, as its members once again try to make needed changes to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees a free, appropriate education to students with disabilities. Last year, reauthorization of the IDEA failed after disability-rights advocates clashed with Republicans who wanted to give schools more authority to remove violent and disruptive students from the classroom. ("Discipline Again To Top Special Ed. Debate," Jan. 29 1997, and "Progress Is Slow-Going in Spec. Ed. Negotiations," April 9, 1997.)

Keeping schools safe and orderly is a priority for both sides, but finding a cost-effective way to do that while protecting the civil rights of disabled children has become one of the most eruptive issues lawmakers have faced in education.

Last year, school officials here started a program that is tailored to the needs of their most disruptive students.

The Success School program takes in students who, because of their behavior, were not learning in a regular classroom.

The students, in grades 6 to 12, attend a separate school, but some take classes during the day at their former schools.

Rutland Superintendent David S. Wolk calls it a "win-win" setup for all students.

He said the program helps poorly behaved students learn, while leaving a safe, orderly environment for students at the schools they left behind.

In the Middle

The program is housed in a former elementary school, renamed Success School, which is comfortably furnished with sofas, chairs, tables, and desks dug out from storage rooms. Knowing that some students come from turbulent homes, the school's staff tries to create an aura of safety, from serving breakfast and lunch each day to offering a cozy "timeout" room and counseling for students who lose control of their emotions.

What's most noteworthy about the Success program is that it's taking place in Vermont--a state with nearly double the national average of disabled students in regular classes, long known as the leader in inclusive education. ("Pioneer System For Special Ed. Watched in Vt," Nov. 1, 1995.)

But the coordinators of Success School don't see it as a step away from inclusion.

"It's a common-sense way to help the inclusion pendulum settle in the middle," Mr. Wolk said. "It's clear this is the best environment for those children."

The goal for most students is to go back to the regular classroom full time, said Ellie McGarry, the district's special-services director. For others, it's gaining the skills needed to find a job. A handful of students, Ms. McGarry said, "wouldn't be in school at all if it weren't for Success."

The district sees the program as a cost-efficient way to provide special education students with a suitable education, while avoiding an expensive day-treatment or residential placement, which could cost roughly $50,000 a year.

It costs the Rutland district about $11,000 to educate a student at Success, compared with the $3,824 the district spends per student in regular classes.

On the Job

This city of 18,000 is mainly a working-class borough settled into the quaintness of rural Vermont and surrounded by some of the nation's premier ski resorts. While it seems isolated from many issues faced by urban districts, problems such as gangs, alcohol and drug abuse, and teenage pregnancy have seeped in during the past few years.

The 30 students at Success are divided into two multilevel classes: middle school and high school.

Each class has a teacher and two aides, and each teacher is certified in special education and has experience dealing with emotional and behavioral problems.

Because students' abilities vary widely, the teachers pull material from a variety of grade levels and sometimes allow students to tutor others, which helps build their self-esteem.

One of the most important approaches, said Jessica Welch, who teaches the middle grades, is building trust and not taking offense at what other teachers might consider disrespectful behavior.

Other staff members say many students have quickly become more responsive and respectful.

"Getting to know the kids was a big part," said Janet Knowles, the program's home-school coordinator. "We certainly don't condone any level of disrespect. But we recognize that there is a need behind it."

Students who are old enough and are motivated to do so can also work at a job placement for class credit and learn to handle the responsibilities of employment.

Students can find jobs on their own or get help from the school-to-work coordinator, Claire Perry, who does not always have an easy task persuading employers to take a student from Success.

"Some people definitely say no," Ms. Perry said.

Another hurdle is teaching the students to be consistent and committed, she said.

Stephanie Corsi has become a model student for the program. The 16-year-old had always been intrigued by emergency health care, so Ms. Perry asked managers of the city's Regional Ambulance Service if they would hire Ms. Corsi.

Paula M. Kenyon, the field supervisor, thought she was accepting a student from the local high school's vocational program. When she realized her mistake, she tried to back out of the agreement.

"My understanding of the Success program was there were a lot of juvenile delinquents down there raising holy hell," Ms. Kenyon said.

But when Ms. Corsi showed up to begin work, Ms. Kenyon decided to let her prove her capability. In three months on the job, Ms. Corsi has completely won her boss over with her talent and enthusiasm.

Although she can't train to become an emergency medical technician until she's 18, Ms. Corsi has taken CPR training and attended recertification and training classes for the other technicians.

"As soon as she turns 18, she has a job," Ms. Kenyon said. "I'm glad we didn't give the boot to her."

Jean Tarazewich, who owns a pet store, was also apprehensive about taking a student from Success. But she felt it would be a good deed to give the experience to a 15-year-old student, who in turn has been a big help with chores, she said.

"From a business sense, I didn't want to do this," she said. "But it's a valuable lesson to show kids what there is to a job."

Discipline Improves

The Success School program benefits not only the students who take part in it, but also those left in regular schools, some local administrators say.

Administrators in the local middle and high schools say that they have seen significant drops in discipline problems at their schools this year, and that the program allows them to spend more time with other students.

The program has had a great impact on at-risk students with moderate problems, said Sanford Bassett, the principal of Rutland Middle School. "These are the kids we never had time to focus on," he said.

In the 1995-96 academic year, Mr. Bassett suspended 64 students. Based on figures from the first half of this year, he estimates that only 34 students will be suspended this school year.

The drop in in-school suspensions is also dramatic: Mr. Bassett projects 17 this year, down from 51 last year. His school serves 375 students in 7th and 8th grades.

At Rutland High School, Larry J. Lattanzi, the associate principal, estimates that suspensions and referrals for discipline have dropped by more than half this year. And the remaining referrals are for less severe discipline problems.

Engaging Parents

Getting parents involved is also a priority. The Success staff visits every student's home several times a year, teachers and counselors try to call or visit parents any time there's a problem, and school staff members routinely hold support groups and spaghetti dinners for parents.

For the most part, parents have been eager to take part in activities, Ms. McGarry said.

"I've always been close to the school because I'm constantly at the school dealing with the problems and issues of my son," said Arthur Griffin, the father of a 7th grader.

Mr. Griffin is pleased with the individualized, hands-on attention the staff gives his son, A.J. "This is the kind of program I know my son has needed," he said.

Tina Baker frequently meets with the staff to make sure her 15-year-old son, Shaun, receives enough discipline and rigorous academic work.

After seven months at Success, Shaun has gotten a better education than he was getting at the local middle school, where he spent more hours in timeout rooms than in the classroom, Ms. Baker said.

And, she adds, he has made friends.

In Shaun's previous school, "the teachers knew him and didn't give him a chance," Ms. Baker said. She said her son does well academically, but has difficulties socially.

Staff members already are planning changes for next year: a longer academic day, meeting with parents before the child begins school, and planning more group activities so students can learn to work together.

Students are planning community-service projects for this spring.

The school also has plans to expand significantly next year. Elementary classes will be added, and a principal will replace the lead teacher.

Success School also will take in students from some neighboring districts, which will pay tuition to the Rutland district through a pilot school choice program run by the state.

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