The Los Angeles Unified School District will keep open 17 special education centers for students with severe disabilities, rather than integrate most of those 4,800 students into the district’s regular schools.
A federal judge late last month approved a request by a group of parents to keep the centers from being changed to regular schools. The parents, who wanted their children to remain in the protected environment of the special schools, reached an agreement to preserve the schools in a mediation session with district officials.
The plan to transform the centers stemmed from a 1993 class action by parents of special education students. The suit, filed under the name of Chanda Smith, a then-student who failed the 10th grade twice after her requests for help were denied, charged the district with failing to provide adequate special education services.
The conflict within the parent community in Los Angeles reflects a divide within the larger world of special education over “inclusion"—the integration of children with disabilities and regular children. Some parents and experts believe that certain special education students cannot handle the social and academic pressures of being in regular classes. Others argue that students with disabilities, no matter how severe, should not be isolated.
District officials said they were relieved the special schools could remain open as an option for some students.
“It is clear to me that the plaintiffs were firmly of a belief that every special education child should be mainstreamed, but there were several hundred parents who disagreed,” said Harold Kwalwasser, the school district’s general counsel. “Our view is that [the law] suggests you should have a full range of options for special education students.”
Donnalyn Jacque-Anton, the district’s assistant superintendent for special education, said some special education centers still plan to enroll a sprinkling of regular students in integrated preschool and kindergarten classes. She said the district wants to provide as much integration as possible, without entirely changing the character of the schools.
Allyn O. Kreps, the lawyer who represents parents in the class action, did not return phone calls for comment last week.
Integration for Others
Without the mediation and the resulting agreement, the district would have had to reduce the proportion of students with disabilities to between 7 percent and 17 percent of the student enrollment at each of the special schools districtwide. That change, district officials said, would have entirely changed the character of the schools.
The 737,000-student district serves 86,000 special education students. About 45,000 of those students are integrated, at least part time, into regular classrooms, Ms. Jacque-Anton said.
Under the 1996 court order that resulted from the class action, the district will still have to integrate 30,000 special education students who are in self-contained classes all day at the district’s 660 regular campuses. District officials are still drafting plans for how to accomplish that requirement in the next four years.
“We’re at the planning and implementation stage,” Superintendent Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor, told the Los Angeles Times early this year. “But we don’t have all the answers.”
Involving the Community
The sweeping change will require the district to renovate school buildings and train teachers, Ms. Jacque-Anton said.
The main goal of the integration plan will not be lost by leaving open the 17 special education centers, said Mary Falvey, a professor of education at California State University-Los Angeles, who helped write the district’s integration plan. She initially favored transforming the special education centers into integrated schools, she said.
Ms. Falvey said the special education centers are seeking ways to work with the neighboring communities or bring in mentors to the schools. She said the students could get integration experience by sharing recess or lunch with community members or students without disabilities.