Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Parents in Columbus, Ohio, says school shortchanging son with Down syndrome

From The Columbus Dispatch:

Their son, Benjamin (pictured), has Down syndrome and requires special help at school, but Melane and Don Barlow want him to receive a good education that prepares him to go as far as he can in life.

The Bloom-Carroll school district in Fairfield County is not meeting their expectations.

"I try to work for the positive," Mrs. Barlow said. "I'm not expecting them to make my son gifted. I want them to give him a fair shake."

The Barlows are among the parents of special-needs children in Bloom-Carroll who have complained about the district to the Ohio Department of Education.

The parents say that district officials are shorting their children on the services that federal law requires, including developing and following a customized learning plan - the "individual education plan" - that special-needs students must receive.

District officials deny this. "We do follow all federal guidelines," said Superintendent Roger Mace. "I think we do a great job of meeting those needs."

The state Department of Education will decide.

The department has begun a "selective review" of the district's special-education practices in response to multiple complaints from two families, said department spokesman Patrick Gallaway.

Parents of students with disabilities are invited to a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 15 at Bloom-Carroll Middle School to share their perspective with state education officials. Parents also may request private meetings with the officials and file written comments.

Gallaway said such reviews are not common. Eight of the state's 614 school districts were reviewed in the past two years. Of them, the Worthington school district's review was prompted by parents' complaints, Gallaway said, and the rest by discrepancies that state officials spotted.

A letter from the department's Office of Exceptional Children to the superintendent dated Nov. 17 notified Mace of the planned review and said it was based on the "number of complaints" filed by parents to the department and to state legislators.

The state review will examine the district's compliance with federal law. That includes: whether students with special needs are being taught in the least-restrictive environment, how their individual education plans are developed and used by their teachers, how the parents participate and whether children's unique needs are being met.

If state officials determine that the district is not following the law, Bloom-Carroll officials must develop a plan showing how they will correct the problems.

Among the district's approximately 1,700 students, 186 have individual education plans, said special-education director Nan Swinehart.

"Two or three disgruntled parents out of 186, I think we're doing pretty good," she said.

Mrs. Barlow, a former special-education teacher in another district, and Mr. Barlow, a Columbus firefighter, have pushed for their son to receive all the help to which he is entitled since he began school.

Now 16, Ben is in eighth grade at the middle school. His federally required learning plan includes small-group instruction, yet Ben has been excluded at times, his mother said.

One day, for example, his language-arts class studied Anne Frank, the Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis in an attic. Ben, whose aide uses flashcards and clip art as modifications to help him learn, could have joined the lesson. Instead, he was put in the back of the classroom and made to work on an assignment that was just for him, Mrs. Barlow said.

Officials have "dumbed down" the test-taking that is required of Ben in another class, she said.

The Barlows expect Ben to go through high school and combine academics with the vocational-education training he also will take that will prepare him to hold down a job.

As they have told district educators, Mrs. Barlow said, "We have big dreams for Ben. We are just excited to see where he is going to go. Please work with us for the benefit of our son."

Angela Dawson also has filed complaints with the state. She said the district has failed to provide the proper educational services and safe, modern buildings required by her two children, who have cystic fibrosis.

Patti and Gary Bartlett complained to the state in 2005. District officials resisted developing an individual education plan for one of their sons who had reading and attention difficulties, Mrs. Bartlett said. The couple ultimately withdrew both their sons and put them in Catholic school. It should not have come to that, Mrs. Bartlett said.

"It appears these problems continue," she said. "I am glad that (the state) is stepping up and will bring about change."

The superintendent said student-privacy law prohibits him from commenting on the parents' criticisms.