For the first time in years, students with intellectual disabilities in the 23,000-student Providence, R.I., school district started school in August attending some classes alongside their typically developing peers—the result of an agreement between the district and the federal government that the U.S. Department of Justice calls a “landmark.”
The 84 students, who represent most of the students with intellectual disabilities in the system, are taking art and physical education classes with other students at Mount Pleasant High School, which has an enrollment of about 1,100. Educators are helping them explore opportunities that may be available to them when they leave school. And teachers are expected to educate them to a higher academic standard than they had experienced before.
Those changes, prompted by a Justice Department probe launched in January, are a huge shift from earlier practice. These students, who mostly have Down syndrome and autism, previously were housed in a separate wing of Mount Pleasant High School, in a program called the Harold A. Birch Vocational School.
The environment at Birch was safe and nurturing, parents and Providence officials said. But it was also devoid of expectations for students beyond eventual employment in a sheltered workshop, where they might spend decades sorting jewelry or packaging medical supplies for a dollar or two per hour.
“Sometimes, educators can be well-intended and think that they’re protecting a child by having low expectations,” said Susan F. Lusi, who has been the superintendent of the Providence district for three years.
Ms. Lusi said that parents had not complained about the program to her or to other school officials, but she also acknowledged that the district had let the program operate with little oversight.
“It is completely possible to have both high expectations and a safe environment for children with disabilities,” Ms. Lusi said.
Nationally, the U.S. Department of Justice since 2009 has been intensifying its efforts to fight improper segregation of individuals with disabilities. Segregation of the type that was at the Birch school “is all too common when states allow low expectations to shape their disability programs,” Eve Hill, the senior counselor to the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in a statement released when the department announced its agreement with the district in June.
In a 30-page report dated June 13, the department described the students’ isolation, their inability to access integrated employment opportunities, and the lack of any systematic transition planning for them.
The agreement with the Justice Department, which was released the same day as the complaint, also requires Rhode Island to bolster its integrated employment-support services.
The Justice Department’s findings were painful to district leaders, Ms. Lusi said. But early in the investigation, “we decided the best way to address what has really been a very long-standing set of issues is to shine light on it,” she added.
The vocational school, now reborn as the Birch Academy at Mount Pleasant, could eventually serve as a model for other districts that are also working to appropriately educate students with intellectual disabilities, Ms. Lusi said.
“We are absolutely not all the way there,” she said, but the work that her staff has undertaken represents a dramatic improvement.
The probe into the Birch Vocational School program started with a U.S. Department of Labor investigation into Training Through Placement, a North Providence, R.I., program that received state funding to provide both sheltered-workshop and day programs for about 90 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. According to the Justice Department report, individuals typically stayed at the program for 15 to 30 years.
Programs like Training Through Placement are legally allowed to pay less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. However, they have to comply with certain labor laws in order to retain that authorization.
In March 2012, the Labor Department’s wage and hour division started investigating Training Through Placement for violations of its authorization to pay less than the minimum wage. The state launched its own investigation, and earlier this year placed the program under new management.
In October of last year, the Labor Department notified the Justice Department that there were potentially other violations that fell under its jurisdiction, as the enforcer of the American with Disabilities Act. The Justice Department focused part of its efforts on Birch, which ran its own sheltered workshop that served as a pipeline to Training Through Placement. Students spent one or two 55-minute class periods performing “various mundane tasks,” in the words of the Justice report, such as assembling jewelry and hand-sorting buttons. Students aged 16 to 21 earned between 50 cents and $2 an hour, while younger pupils were unpaid. Other work experiences for Birch students involved helping cafeteria employees at Mount Pleasant empty trash cans.
Sheltered workshops have come under increased scrutiny nationally. This year, the Justice Department is supporting the plaintiffs in a class action filed by disability-rights advocates in Oregon. The suit, Lane v. Kitzhaber, alleges that thousands of Oregon residents have been placed in sheltered-workshop programs when they could be served in integrated employment settings.
In addition, a bill in the U.S. Senate to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act seeks to curtail efforts to steer people with disabilities into jobs that pay below the federal minimum wage. People could be placed in those jobs only if a rehabilitation counselor reviewed the placement every six months to ensure that it was part of training a worker for later employment at competitive wages. Some advocates say that the bill would still allow people with disabilities to languish in dead-end jobs.
Rhode Island has said that as part of its agreement with the Justice Department, it will do away with all state-funded sheltered workshops and day programs in the next 3 to 5 years.
The Justice Department was not the first entity to raise concerns about the Birch program. In 2011, a team from the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization of the nation’s large urban public school systems, was invited to the Providence district to assess the school system’s special education program. Among other findings, the team’s final report noted that Birch students had a “very low level” of access to academics. None graduated with a standard diploma.
The council’s report also said that some Birch students experienced integrated employment at area hospitals and medical centers, but that stopped when those facilities instituted mandatory immunization of workers. In the words of Birch’s longtime principal, Larry Roberti, the students had “suffered enough,” the report said.
Among several recommendations, the organization’s report suggested making changes at the Birch program to ensure that it operated with research-based practices.
Ms. Lusi, the superintendent, said that those recommendations came at the same time the district was working to improve its programming for English-language learners. The special education program took a temporary back seat.
“The context was, ‘You have some issues in special education, but you by far need to pay more attention to English-language learners,’ ” Ms. Lusi said. “For whatever reason, it didn’t flag [the issue] for me in the way that the Justice Department [report] did.”
Mr. Roberti, who retired from the district in June, could not be reached for this story. In April, the mayorally appointed school board voted against an administration recommendation to fire him, after many community members spoke in his support.
One of those who supported Mr. Roberti, parent Zulma Garcia, said in an interview that parents were not told about the Justice Department investigation, only that the school’s well-liked leader was facing termination.
“I specifically wrote emails to the school department and never got any response,” Ms. Garcia said. “I went and supported him at the hearing with good faith.” Had the Justice Department’s report been released before the meeting, the response from the community may have been different, she said.
The situation in Providence, though amplified by the federal report, is not unique, said Debra Hart, the educational coordinator at the Institute for Community Inclusion, based at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“I think many school districts across our country, and in Massachusetts where I’m most familiar with, struggle with the transition time frame, in particular for students with intellectual disabilities,” Ms. Hart said. “They’ve developed transition programs that track kids with certain labels like [intellectual disability] into specific programs.”
Her organization is a partner in the federally funded Center for Postsecondary Education for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities, which promotes programs that allow such students to attend college. But such programs are still little-known, Ms. Hart said.
“Parents don’t know what they don’t know,” she said. “And teachers and guidance counselors don’t know about this either.”
Providence is attempting to bridge that knowledge gap, its officials say.
After the results of the Justice Department’s investigation were released, Lisa Vargas-Sinapi, the district’s director of special education, and Nancy Stevenin, the director of transition services, were tasked with leading the effort to revamp the Birch program. One of the first groups that needed to be won over were the parents.
Ms. Garcia admits she was worried for her 18-year-old son, Nicholas, who has what she described as “global delays.”
“I was afraid he would be bullied, and that he would not be able to defend himself” if placed in a regular classroom, she said. But the school district has been very responsive, she said, and “Nicholas loves his new classroom and he seems to be adjusting well.”
Her son is a bit frustrated by the curriculum because it’s all new for him, she said. “I’m still a little nervous about it because it’s not in full swing. I think there will be a lot of learning lessons this year for the staff and the parents,” she added. “We’re starting from scratch at Birch.”
Ms. Vargas-Sinapi said the district has worked closely with parents, and that regular-education students at Mount Pleasant have been welcoming to their new classmates. The school is also looking at how to connect Birch students to sports and other after-school activities.
“We’re really committed to this,” Ms. Vargas-Sinapi said. “We really feel this is an opportunity to shine and do the best for our students.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2013 edition of Education Week as For Intellectually Disabled, a ‘Landmark’