Blind Student Says Class-Rank Flap Is Only Latest Indignity

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Newburgh, N.Y.

As this spring's high school graduates collect their diplomas here next week, the No. 1 student in the Class of 1997 doesn't expect to be on hand to deliver her valedictory address.

She's afraid she might be booed off the stage.

It's not the first time that Santina Polera, who has been nearly blind since birth, says she hasn't felt welcome in this city's public schools. Ever since she first tried to enroll in kindergarten--and officials allegedly insisted she be placed in a school for the developmentally disabled--her mother claims to have fought a losing battle to get the school district to address her needs.

"They considered her retarded from day one," Debra Polera said in an interview last week. "They gave her nothing."

Now, on the eve of graduation, district officials have taken a step that the 18-year-old honor student perceives as the latest in a lifetime of affronts.

Although she has been schooled at home in a specially equipped classroom all her life, Ms. Polera is nonetheless considered a senior at Newburgh Free Academy, the only public school serving this Hudson Valley city and its environs. As it turned out, the high marks she earned from her tutor--based on exams approved by the district--put her at the top of this year's senior class.

But members of the class were not pleased that a girl who had never attended their school would be valedictorian. So the Newburgh school board responded to their protests late last month with a policy change that requires Ms. Polera to share the status of valedictorian with the class' second-ranking student.

"I have been suppressed for years," Ms. Polera said. "But I feel that this is the ultimate indignity."

Suit Seeks $30 Million

In December, months before the valedictorian flap began to unfold, Ms. Polera charged in a $30 million lawsuit in federal court that the school system had consistently neglected its duty to provide her with an appropriate education.

Because of that pending suit, officials of the 12,000-student district are reluctant to discuss the class-rank dispute or the details of their involvement in Ms. Polera's education over the years.

In court papers, however, the district has denied discriminating against her. And in an interview, Acting Superintendent Ralph A. Pizzo said the district's recent policy reflected concern that Ms. Polera, unlike the district's second-ranking student, had not taken the rigorous courses and exams needed to qualify for a state regents' diploma.

"We're trying to recognize both students who worked very hard to get where they got," Mr. Pizzo said.

The new board policy says that the senior ranked No. 1 in the class will be valedictorian. But if that student is not earning a regents' diploma, then the top-ranking student in the regents' program will share the honor.

"The board values excellence and wishes to inculcate in pupils the desire to do their best in all things," the policy states.

Home Schooling Questioned

At the imposing 70-year-old high school, it is hard to find students with much sympathy for Ms. Polera. Tatiana Rich, the president of the senior class, said students were troubled that Ms. Polera did not attend the school.

"There are people with disabilities who do come to school," Ms. Rich said in an interview last week outside the tan brick building. "Why couldn't she come and do the same thing?"

Others suggested that Ms. Polera's success had much to do with being sheltered from school problems, including large classes and teachers of varying ability.

"You would get really good grades too if you had one-on-one teaching every day," remarked 10th grader Kellie deMitt.

A few, however, faulted the district for not providing Ms. Polera with better opportunities. And some called for a method of determining class rank that takes into account the difficulty of students' course loads, such as the grade weighting that is common in many schools.

In an interview last week in her lawyers' New York City office, Ms. Polera said she believed that students had formed opinions of her based on "cruel assumptions."

And although she didn't have to deal with school, she said, "I've dealt with the shame and humiliation of being treated as if I wasn't fit to breathe the same air."

"As to why I didn't attend," she added, "a place was never made for me."

Accounts Conflict

Because of strokes she suffered during birth, Ms. Polera said, she has no sight in one eye and severely limited vision in the other.

In its court filing, however, the district appears to contest her description of herself as legally blind and asserts that she is classified for educational purposes as "visually impaired."

The district also maintains that, prior to the lawsuit, no one "challenged the appropriateness of the programs and services the district provides to Santina" even though she was represented by a lawyer. And it cites Ms. Polera's acceptance at Vassar College in nearby Poughkeepsie, where she plans to enroll this fall, as proof that she received an adequate education.

In the family's eyes, that is no thanks to the district. They say that despite repeated requests and complaints, officials never provided a curriculum and offered meager and substandard materials.

Moreover, Ms. Polera and her mother say the family bore the full cost of her education until 1993, when the district began partially paying for her home tutoring. For the past few years, the district also has reviewed her exams and accepted her grades.

With graduation day approaching, Ms. Polera said she was leaning against attending the ceremony. She said she fears for her safety and self-respect in part because she has received crank phone calls lately, including one in which the caller threatened to boo her if she should appear.

But in the end, Ms. Polera feels she has achieved something that no controversy can take away.

"Valedictorian is not chosen based someone's social popularity," she said. "This is not the Miss America pageant. It's a position one earns."

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  • Read about the impact that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has made over the past twenty years from the U.S. Department of Education's Web site.
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