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From left, Demetri Exarhoulakos, 11, Tianna Dunbar, 10, and Marquisha Bowen, 9, worked on a math problem at the Ludwig van Beethoven School in West Roxbury last month.
From left, Demetri Exarhoulakos, 11, Tianna Dunbar, 10, and Marquisha Bowen, 9, worked on a math problem at the Ludwig van Beethoven School in West Roxbury last month. (Essdras M. Suarez/ Globe Staff)

In Boston, special ed students find barrier to mainstream classes

More than 40 percent of Boston's special education students spend most of their school day exclusively with other students with disabilities, nearly three times the state average.

State Department of Education officials have warned the Boston public school system that it is systematically separating many students without documenting why it is necessary to do so, depriving them of academic and social development. The state, as part of a review of the school system this spring, will follow up on its concerns about special education.

In Boston, 44.3 percent of special education students spent the majority of the school week only with other children with disabilities in the 2004-05 school year, more than any other Massachusetts school system, according to the latest state figures. The statewide average is roughly 16 percent.

Boston's segregation rate is unusually high among the state's urban districts. A 2004 study by the University of Massachusetts found that in the 33 urban districts, an average of 28 percent of special education students were segregated from the rest of the school for the majority of the time. The national rate, for all districts, is 19 percent.

''It's apartheid," said Maria Roges, a Boston parent who fought for her third-grade son with autism to be in an integrated class. ''They're not being seen by the rest of the school. I didn't want him to be in a classroom all day where the normal was banging your head on a wall, spinning, pulling your eyelashes out, and screaming."

Roges is among many parents pressing the city's school system to better integrate special education students. Parents say the isolation prevents their children from growing academically and makes them invisible to others.

Nearly one in five children in the Boston schools, slightly higher than the state average of 16 percent, have special needs, including emotional, physical, cognitive, or learning disabilities.

Boston school officials acknowledge that they are segregating too high a percentage of special education students, and they say they are working to integrate more students into regular classrooms. The segregation rate, they say, has been reduced from a high of 50 percent nearly a decade ago to 42 percent this school year.

But they point to the high number of severely disabled students they accept, students who they say would be sent to private programs in other communities and often could not function in an integrated classroom.

''Even given all of that, we also feel that the number is higher than we want it to be," said Carolyn Riley, the school system's senior director of unified student services who oversees special education. ''The best situation is to be served in the general population."

Sometimes, parents seek placements that are more segregated than the district recommends, school officials said.

State and federal laws require school systems to put special education students in the least-restrictive classrooms possible. School systems are supposed to consider bringing in an aide or other resources before moving a child to a more isolated setting, because ''there is a sense that substantially separate classrooms are warehousing kids," said Marcia Mittnacht, the state's special education director.

When a child has a disability, a team of educators and parents is supposed to determine annually the most appropriate setting, and parents must consent to all decisions.

Special education students are typically assigned to one of three types of classrooms, from the least restrictive, where students spend 20 percent or less of their week in segregated classes, to the most restrictive, in which they are segregated at least 60 percent of the time. Before segregating students, school systems are supposed to justify their actions with documentation, such as a finding that the student is easily distracted by classmates in a large classroom.

State officials, in a 2002 report, said Boston did not clearly demonstrate why special education students needed to be removed from regular classrooms. Boston also provided no evidence that it gave students a chance in a regular classroom.

In addition, the school system failed to show why the students could not be served in a regular education setting with extra services, such as a teacher's aide. Furthermore, the report said, parents did not always sign the placement form to formally consent to the segregation, as state law requires.

''I'm sure that many, many of the parents don't consent because many of them don't even understand what the heck is going on," said Carol Martinez, who insisted that her fourth-grade son, who has speech and writing difficulties, be placed in a regular classroom in Boston.

Riley said Boston may not have had the paperwork the state required four years ago, but it did get parents' verbal consent and has since trained schools on how to submit the proper documents.

In Lowell, where just 12 percent of students with disabilities are segregated for most of the school week, the school system first puts clusters of special education students in integrated classrooms and often provides them extra assistance, such as a special education teacher or an aide, said Superintendent Karla Baehr.

Roges said her son, now in an integrated third-grade class at a Dorchester elementary school, has an aide in class, and expectations are higher than when he was in a segregated setting in his previous Boston school.

''He's not bringing the same worksheets home year after year, coloring the red part red and the blue part blue," Roges said. ''At least he's doing multiplication."

Others want the same opportunity for their children, at the proper time.

At the Ludwig van Beethoven Elementary School in West Roxbury, Naim Ball is one of eight fourth-graders in a segregated classroom on the second floor of the school. The children have a variety of emotional and social disabilities and spend most of the school day with one another. Two of Naim's classmates are allowed to join the rest of their grade for math, lunch, and recess.

In a recent class, Naim, 10, and his classmates worked on math problems. One girl twirled around in her seat. Another boy rocked side to side. The children sat at desks spaced several feet apart, because they have trouble controlling their impulses and might hit others if they grow frustrated, said the school's principal, Eileen Nash. But scholastically, they learned the same math lesson students had in a regular classroom that day, though the pace was slightly slower.

Naim and most of his classmates eat lunch in the classroom because the school believes they cannot behave well enough to eat in the cafeteria. Naim, who was interviewed by the Globe with permission from his father and the school, said he wants to learn and play with the rest of the fourth-graders and has tried hard to ''follow directions, be respectful, mind my own business, and stop being silly."

His personal goal, which he prints each day on a behavior chart, is to ''get out of the cluster and go to mainstream." He wrote in an essay that his father also wants him to be in a regular fourth-grade class. ''I can get mainstreamed," Naim said. ''I just got to pay attention."

Parents said at recent public forums about the Boston superintendent search that they want the next schools chief, who would replace Thomas W. Payzant, to make integration of special education students a priority.

''Parents don't want their kids coddled and isolated, because their child is going to be out in the world," said Robert Gaudet, a senior research analyst who worked on the UMass study of special education in the state's cities. ''There is not a substantially separate classroom in the real world."

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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