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Segregation via special ed/zero-tolerance
Any productive discussion of educational transformation must address the ways in which schools keep kids off the books, so to speak, who don't fit the mold of a successful student as defined by school authorities. Roundtable members had plenty to say on this subject, much of it boiled down to concern that data is not readily available on alternative schools or disciplinary programs.
John Harris Loflin: " I have a degree in alternative education. IPS instituted 21 alternative programs in 2005. They are hidden. You can't even find data. We don't know if these are places to hide certain students who will bring IPS test score averages down, graduation rates down, attendance rates down. ... These schools lie in the underbelly of the system. ..."
Alex Sage: "... that doesn't get talked about."
Anthony Artis: "Then there's the question of the school to prison pipeline ... and how corporations are setting that up."
Alex Sage: "That's ACLU's platform for the year is the 'school-to-prison' pipe-line."
Anthony Artis: "My son had a heck of time at Arsenal Technical. He got in trouble at school and they put him in an alternative program — like a dumping ground for the undesirables. That really turned him around (for the worse). It was like sending him to prison."
Community concern over how alternative education tracks and special education classes relate to "the school-to-prison pipeline" is not limited to roundtable members. Separately and independently from the NUVO education roundtable, local parent Brenda Williams contacted the news desk to report her long-term distress with the structure of the state's special-education system.
After making an appointment, Williams visited the newsroom with a suitcase in tow containing binder upon binder detailing how several schools throughout Indiana, from New Albany to Pike Township, kept trying to steer her hard-of-hearing son into psychological testing and special education instead of providing the extra reading tutoring he needed. The more she pushed against and questioned the system, the more various school districts demonstrated retaliatory behaviors, she said.
She laid out a paper trail of strong evidence culminating in discovery that a local school district forged her permission to administer psychological testing. Just a few
days later, she said, her 11-year-old son was taken from her custody. He was placed for four days in the local juvenile corrections facility, accused of raping a girl on the school bus, despite the alleged act somehow escaping the attention of the bus driver and a bus monitor. The case never went to court. But, she said, the experiences her son endured scarred him forever.
The detailed story of her son, who is now grown and living in another state, must be saved for a different day, but the myriad questions that even the synopsis raises about accountability over federal special education and disability services funds is important to keep front and center during the current reform conversation.
"I do believe there are human rights violations that are going on," Williams said. "People know about it."
Among her several pounds of paperwork, Williams fishes out a column by RiShawn Biddle in the March 30, 2007, edition of The Indianapolis Star, entitled "Putting males into the education ghetto." It outlined several statistics across several townships suggesting that males, especially black males, were being labeled as emotionally disturbed and learning disabled at rates far greater than their proportionate population would suggest.
"Black and White males made up just 45 percent of Indianapolis Public School's overall enrollment in the 2005 school year, yet they account for 58 percent of students diagnosed as mentally retarded, 80 percent of the students diagnosed as mentally disturbed and 64 percent of the students diagnosed with a "specific learning disability," one section read.
A comment posted at the column's end continues to haunt Williams to this day and it underscores some of the roundtable's most salient concerns.
"Uncovering the underlying motives and deconstructing educational rationale, economics and social/educational politics of human intelligence perpetuated by our very public schools would be too much," a portion of the comment read. "The topic is too dangerous, too political, and its roots are too deep in the history of our country, state and Indianapolis Public Schools. You can't face the truth because if it were known, the house of cards that legitimizes local public education would collapse ... and we can't have that ... even if it means we have to sacrifice our youth on the alter of special education."
Williams said she has encountered other families in similar predicaments, people who suffered retaliation for filing state and federal complaints against schools.
"If this has happened to me, how many other parents has it happened to?" Williams asked. "I was trying to petition parents to say 'let's challenge the system' and it's very hard to crack here in Indiana. People are very complacent."
Backing a cooperative approach
The "Opportunity Schools" plan does address some aspects of special education. It recognizes the significant challenges that now exist in special education and also highlights an area that the proposed redesigned district will still be dependent on the IPS central office.
"The gap between disabled and nondisabled students in IPS was larger than the district's achievement gap between poor and more affluent students and the gap between black and white students," the report noted.
IPS serves students with disabilities through a Single School Corporation, while most of the rest of the state handles such services through cooperative efforts.
"Statewide, SSC students are identified with more severe disabilities, are more likely to be placed in self-contained settings, and have higher dropout rates and lower graduation rates than students educated in non-SSC districts," the report said.
Even as it advocated more inclusiveness for students with disabilities, the report also noted that "once most schools have become Opportunity Schools, IPS may continue to operate a small number of schools and provide special education on those campuses."
It concluded that IPS must continually monitor "qualitative and quantitative data to prove students with disabilities are achieving and that schools are complying with federal, state and local education regulations.
Establishing community standards
"We think all kids — no matter what their backgrounds, no matter how economically challenged, no matter what their family circumstances — all kids can excel if given the right support and conditions," Harris said. "That needs to be the goal we strive for every day. And when we see less than half the kids are graduating without a waiver (and) the district is almost doubled the number of waivers issued in the last few years, less than half the kids are proficient on the state standardized exams ... we need to do much better than we are doing.
"We think there are ways the district can be redesigned that can produce substantially better results. But we're very interested in sparking a conversation ... we're hopeful that, if we have robust conversation, what emerges from that will be an even better plan than what we produced.
"That is not to say we don't believe strongly in our plan."
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