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September 9, 2005


Obviously stunned by a litany of 'horror stories' about the Brandywine School District's management of its special-education program, the school board and superintendent Bruce Harter vowed a thorough and quick overhaul.

"We have been causing you -- and, more important, your children -- emotional turmoil and [have] let you down," said board president Craig Gilbert, addressing members of the Brandywine Special Needs Parent-Teacher Association at a workshop meeting of the board on Sept. 7.

Harter said he will present a preliminary plan for dealing with the situation when the board next meets on Sept. 26 with a final version ready for board to approve a month later. Among other things, it will provide for establishment of the special-needs taskforce which the P.T.A. has proposed.

"We're going to attack this with an urgency we have not seen before," Gilbert promised.

Top priority, he added, will be determine if the district is violating or circumventing federal or state law, as was charged at the meeting. "If we're breaking the law, we have to find out and stop it right away," he said.

Generally speaking, the applicable laws require that the district use its resources to provide effective teaching in the least restrictive school environment consistent with a child's needs and disability level. Those students are to be taught to and evaluated against the same standards as so-called 'typical' students.

A longer range objective will be to improve the district's standing in special education students' performance as measured by standards testing. The board was told that that a recent -- but until now closely held -- report listed Brandywine as 18th among the state's 19 public school districts in that regard. Nationally, it was said, Delaware ranks 46th among the 50 states.

Alex Rittberg, copresident of the P.T.A., said Brandywine  is going through the motions of complying with federal and state laws mandating 'inclusive' education for handicapped children, "but you're not educating them."

"For every grade, Brandywine special ed students are below state special-ed averages for meeting or exceeding academic standards. ... Scores may be going up, but we are not closing the achievement gap between Brandywine and other districts. Brandywine remains behind," he said.

More to the point, he added, young men and women who have gone through Brandywine schools -- many of whom are ineligible to graduate from high school, if they haven't already dropped out -- are not prepared for independent or self-sufficient living.

Parents, who must fight a steeply uphill battle for "appropriate" education plans for their children,  are "frequently bullied" by district personnel charged with developing those plans, he charged. "Many times a parent’s knowledge of their child’s disability is not taken seriously by the [district] even when they have independent specialists assisting them."

"Staff attitude and behaviors need to change at all levels." he said.

Rittberg's carefully structured presentation was followed by an hour of highly personalized testimony from more than a dozen parents, most of whom offered what amounted to case histories of the district's alleged failure to meet their children's needs.

Amy Gutowski said her 'severely challenged' daughter is in a class with 11 other children at two elementary grade levels to which no aide is assigned although Delaware Department of Education authorizes a teacher unit for every six students.

Debbie Siple said her child's "reading instruction stopped at sixth grade."

Maria Kelley charged "racial disparity" in the district's dealing with special needs children.

Marie Kennel said that, when she complained about an education plan, the district person with whom she was dealing dismissed her by remarking, "What do you expect for a child like that?"

Brandywine administrators have an adversarial attitude toward special-needs students and their parents, according to Marie Anne Aghazadian, director of the Parent Information Center of Delaware, an advocacy and support organization. "There is a common thread of dismissing what parents have to say."

Moreover, she said, "special education teachers are not capable of writing measurable goals and objectives" for the education plans that the law requires be prepared and followed on an individual-student basis.

"I am troubled and disturbed by what you all have said," Olivia Johnson-Harris, one of two newly seated Brandywine board members, said after hearing the testimony.

Her voice cracking with emotion, she added, "I came on this board so that we would not leave any children behind. I'm very sorry the district has let you down."

Debra Heffernan, the other new board member, was elected, in part, on the basis of her involvement with Brandywine special education activities.

At several points during the testimony, board members, Harter and other administrators at the meeting applauded parents' remarks. None were defensive in their response.

"This is an area of real weakness for the Brandywine School District. We have not put as much effort as we should [during] the past four years," Harter acknowledged.

"We need to find a way to make what we intend to do for every child in the district happen," said Mark Huxoll.

Nancy Doorey, who formerly was president of the board, said that, despite several years of involvement with public education on the district and state levels, she was unaware of Brandywine's and the state's standings with regard to special education performance. She called for "bringing in the best expertise we can find to deal with this in a neutral and powerful way."

"This is not an issue of money. We know there are districts with the same level of funding we have [which] are doing much better with special education," she said.

© 2005. All rights reserved.

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