Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Blind, disabled children relocated from familiar school

From the Oakland, Calif., Tribune:

It's not easy for Faith Murray to find her way around. The 9-year-old Oakland girl, whose warm personality has earned her the reputation of class charmer, is blind and mentally disabled. Cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects a person's movement, also makes it harder for her to walk.

But after years at Montclair Elementary School, a popular school in the Oakland hills, Faith had become so familiar with the twists and turns of the surrounding neighborhood that she learned to read a braille map. Soon, she was leading her visually impaired classmates to the grocery store, the laundry and other places in the Montclair shopping district — exactly the sort of independence the special education program for blind students with severe developmental disabilities was designed to instill.

When school starts up again Aug. 25, however, Faith and her classmates won't be seen swinging their canes along Mountain Boulevard, or through Montclair's hallways. Overcrowding at Montclair prompted Oakland Unified School District staff to move the one-classroom kindergarten through fifth-grade program to Glenview Elementary School, two miles away.

Until Faith learns the new terrain, she will be following, not leading.

Parents and special education advocates were alarmed by the school district's decision to relocate the well-established program — an announcement that wasn't made until June, on the last week of school. The move uprooted not only the seven visually impaired children at Montclair, but students in a special education class at Glenview were shuffled to a third school, Bella Vista Elementary, to make room for them.

While Glenview's principal has been very welcoming, parents say, the school's hilly environment is a harsh place for the blind and the wheelchair-bound to develop a sense of self-sufficiency. A flight of stairs separates the classrooms from the lower play yard — where Glenview's new play structure is located — making it difficult for the children to interact with the rest of the students. And, during the summer session, the routes to the nearby public library and the neighborhood's shopping area proved impossible for the whole class to navigate.

One morning, when his small class took a field trip to the public library, an important part of the special education program, 6-year-old Jacob Wenster had to stay behind with an aide. The hill on the way back to Glenview is so long and steep that none of the teacher's aides were able to muscle his wheelchair over it.

Jacob, who has severe developmental delays and eats through a feeding tube, enters the second grade this fall. He has attended a different Oakland public school each year since preschool.

Jacob's mother, Marie Wenster, said the nonchalant way in which parents were informed of the move confirmed her suspicions: that children with special needs are "second-class citizens" in the eyes of the school administration.

"It's like we're an afterthought, really," Wenster said.

Cheryl Theis, an education advocate for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, a civil rights law and policy center in Berkeley, said school districts have the right to relocate special education programs, as long as children continue to receive the same services and support.

But for a variety of reasons, Theis said, "Children in special education have more precarious placements, just in general." She added, "The kids who need the most stability often have the least."