part 1 of 2
By all appearances, Dave Spinks is an excellent principal. He moves through his bustling one-story school easily and informally. He greets each child by name and can spin a personal minibiography in a few sentences. His school's staff-to-student ratio--about one-to-ten--is something that most private colleges can't touch, never mind other public elementary schools. On the average, he spends two and a half times the money on his students that other local schools do.

So it's not surprising that Spinks has a waiting list crammed with families hoping their preschoolers and kindergartners will get an opportunity to attend his school in Lakewood. Denice Rivera is one fan.

Rivera believed in Spinks's facility, Fletcher Miller Elementary School, so much that last summer she and her husband sold their one-year-old dream house in Thornton. They moved back into the same Jefferson County apartment complex they'd left the previous year just so their daughter Tracy could attend. "The move was discouraging," she says, "but the school is worth it. It's wonderful."

Yet Spinks, a young, lean, slightly balding man with an eye-locking gaze, is feeling defensive these days. Increasingly, a handful of parents in Jefferson County have publicly agitated to abolish the school. Officials in the Colorado Department of Education have taken to speaking out against Fletcher Miller. And, while it didn't mention the school by name, a U.S. Department of Education report last year ripped Jefferson County for relying too much on schools like Fletcher Miller.

Since it opened in 1963, Fletcher Miller has been attended by students who are severely handicapped. What's wrong with that, according to those who see the school as a problem, is that that's all who attend it.

Kathy Ratz is an Adams County special-education teacher who is trying to pull her son out of Miller and place him in his neighborhood school. The reason, she says, is that schools exclusively for handicapped kids teach them to move in an artificial and separate world of group homes. "Fletcher Miller is an antiquated system that prepares special-needs children for a future that is no longer there for them," she says. "I just wish I had never, ever, ever put Michael in Fletcher Miller."

Whatever anyone thinks of its mission or academics, Fletcher Miller is antiquated in at least one sense. It, along with two other schools used by Jeffco--Margaret Walters and Robert Weiland--are the only local schools in the state that exist exclusively to serve handicapped students. For the growing number of people who say the days of spiriting disabled students away from their nondisabled friends should be long gone, the three schools have become a lightning rod for their impatience with Colorado's largest school system.

Despite the mounting opposition, the Jefferson County Board of Education says it is committed to keeping the three schools. The reason is parents like Denice Rivera, who believes that her daughter--who cannot walk or talk--is in exactly the right place. "There are some kids who can be mainstreamed into regular classrooms," she says. "But mine is not one of them."

Despite what many school districts describe as a commitment to include disabled kids in buildings and classrooms with their typical peers, reality can be a different story. Just ask Laura Merrill.

When Merrill moved her son, Forest, out of Fletcher Miller several years ago, she attempted to enroll him at his local school in Golden. But she soon found out that Forest, who has cerebral palsy and who is confined to a wheelchair, would not fit in. "It's an old school, with several flights of stairs and no elevator," she recalls. "So it was not acceptable."

As a result, Forest now attends another school fourteen miles from his house, where he spends part of the day with typical kids. "He doesn't have a lot of friends there, because it's so far from home," his mother says. "Kids who are not given the option of going to their neighborhood school miss out on a lot."

One reason that some schools still are unable to accommodate disabled students is that the idea of educating the handicapped along with everyone else is a relatively new one. It wasn't until 1975, after a series of lawsuits against school districts, that Congress passed the first laws mandating "a free and appropriate public education" for every child regardless of his physical or mental condition.

But the notion of educating handicapped students separately has persisted. The disabled generally have made it into regular classrooms only after having proved they could keep up. "We've spent the past twenty years having kids try to earn their way back into classrooms with everyone else," says Brian McNulty, director of the state education department's Office of Special Services. "So we've had a system that for years has systematically excluded kids."  

The result was the snowballing of a separate, and huge, parallel public-school system called special education. It quickly took over assessing, labeling, educating and caring for the growing number of students being identified as disabled. In 1977 the national bill for all special-ed services was $1 billion. Today it comes in at about $30 billion a year. Colorado's special-ed bill swelled from $125 million in 1980 to $214 million a decade later.

Recognizing that the 1975 laws hadn't worked as anticipated, Congress in 1990 again tackled the problem. The new legislation stressed that local districts must educate all their disabled students--the physically as well as emotionally handicapped--in the "least restrictive environment" possible.

Since then, the trickle of handicapped children found studying alongside their more typical peers has turned into a steady stream. Exactly how successful Colorado has been in including kids with disabilities in regular classrooms depends on whom you talk to.

In October 1992 the ARC (formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens) ranked Colorado thirtieth among states in its efforts to include mentally retarded students in typical public-school classrooms. Six months ago U.S. News & World Report ranked Colorado as the ninth worst state in the country when it came to educating disabled kids alongside everyone else. According to the survey, Colorado channeled less than a quarter of its special-ed students into regular classrooms, compared with 83 percent in Vermont and more than 60 percent in neighboring Wyoming, New Mexico and Nebraska.

McNulty hotly disputes Colorado's low numbers. He says that when the state reported that only 24 percent of its handicapped kids were in regular classrooms, it was referring to those kids who stayed there all day. When the handicapped kids who attend regular classrooms part of the time are added up, he says, the actual figure stands closer to 90 percent.

In fact, he continues, "all kids with disabilities in this state have been moved into typical classrooms--except in Jefferson County."

Two years ago representatives from the U.S. Department of Education visited several schools in Jefferson County. The agency's report, which came out in September 1993, offered a glimpse into why Jeffco is considered by many people to be behind the curve.

Federal laws call for each special-ed child to be individually assessed before being assigned to a particular type of classroom. However, the education department found that in some instances, Jeffco was automatically shuffling kids to its segregated schools if they had certain physical disabilities or if they fell within a particular level of mental retardation. The report also noted that the disabled children sent to such schools were, as a group, given no opportunity to interact with typical kids.

When Brianna Willey, also known as Breeze, was born ten years ago, it didn't take long for her mother, Charlene, to become concerned. "I knew something was wrong with her," she recalls. "She cried twenty hours a day, all the time. She couldn't eat and she couldn't sleep. The doctors told me nothing was wrong with her. But I have another daughter, and I knew."

When Breeze turned three, her parents discovered that there were not many preschools willing to take care of a child who was still not toilet-trained and who had only just begun walking at age two. The exception was Jefferson County, which had a special preschool. For a little extra "tuition," the district would watch Breeze for three hours a day.

"It was a godsend at the time," Willey recalls. "It was an excellent program, but that's all there was. It was either that or quit my job and go crazy."

It was at Jeffco's preschool that Willey also learned that her child had a learning disability. "The staff said she needed to go to a special school," she says. "At the time I realized it was true. But it bothered me. I didn't believe Breeze belonged in a little world of kids with special needs."

Convinced that Breeze needed to spend her days next to typical kids her own age, Willey next attempted to enroll her daughter at her neighborhood Jeffco school. But, she recalls, "the principal took one look at her needs and said, `No way. This isn't her slot.'"

Breeze was given two choices within Jefferson County. The first was a school that placed all its handicapped kids in a trailer across the parking lot. The program allowed the disabled students to participate with typical kids in art and music and lunch. Willey was unimpressed. "These kids were feeding on their disabilities; they were being helped too much," she recalls. "I could turn Breeze into an invalid by helping her with everything, but I want her to learn to live in the world."  

The other option was Betty Adams Elementary, which at the time educated disabled children in the same building as its typical students, but in different classrooms. Willey chose Adams, which Breeze still attends. Unfortunately, she has to travel up to forty minutes one way to get there from her home.

Being considered unresponsive to the latest trends in special education is a new position for Jefferson County, which serves more than 80,000 students, about 11,000 of whom are considered disabled for one reason or another. For years the county was widely regarded as a pioneer in educating the handicapped.

It accomplished this partly by paying particularly close attention to kids who might need special attention early. Jefferson County has long employed specialists who catch kids with borderline disabilities far earlier than most districts. Because the children are given necessary attention sooner, they frequently can avoid being tagged as disabled. The result, says McNulty, is that despite the federal education department's 1992 audit findings, Jefferson County still designates a smaller percentage of its students handicapped than other districts.

More important, Jeffco has prided itself on providing a wealth of options for every child with special needs (although many parents contend that their access to the more inclusionary options is limited). They range from classrooms that fully include every child with a disability to rooms in regular schools that are for disabled children only to separate schools like Fletcher Miller.

Today the district is dotted with impressive programs for children with disabilities who are included in classrooms with typical kids. Most are designated schools within each of the district's fourteen "articulation areas"--schools clustered around and feeding into a single high school. The county found that it could more efficiently provide the variety of special services required by handicapped kids--speech, occupational and physical therapists, social workers, psychologists--in a single area, rather than spread them out over the entire district.

To administrators and supporters of the district, it is that variety that continues to make Jefferson County schools a beacon in the special-ed world. "We ought to have a couple different alternatives for parents of kids with special needs," says David DiGiacomo, president of the Jefferson County Board of Education. "We can have a Fletcher Miller and parents who want to send their kids to a special school. And we can have a local school where their needs are met as well."

"There is no magic, one-size-fits-all education system where a person can just step in and learn," adds Spinks. "It just isn't realistic. What our critics want to do is say everyone's plain vanilla. If that's the case, why are so many parents in regular education crying out for more options like charter schools? I get calls from people all over the country saying, `I can't believe Fletcher still exists; we're moving out there.'"

It is exactly that same range of options that grates on others. Says Jerry Watson, who as principal of Jeffco's Colorow Elementary School has been building a school that strives to include disabled kids in regular classrooms, "I don't know that Jefferson County needs a Fletcher Miller."

On this late April morning, Diane Cox's Arvada kitchen is crowded with the smells of fresh poppyseed muffins, strong coffee and cigarette smoke. Cox is the informal leader of a small group of disgruntled parents called the Adams Support Group, named for Betty Adams Elementary School, where their children attend. An Army veteran, she stands straight and uses clipped, declarative sentences to describe her campaign to convince Jefferson County that full inclusion of all disabled kids makes perfect sense. "What I want for my kids," she says, "they don't want."

Her ten-year-old son, Robert, was born with a form of photosensitive epilepsy; he can be thrown into a seizure by light bouncing off objects as diverse as venetian blinds and escalators. When he was five he was sent to what Cox calls "a nasty little classroom" for kids with special needs in an elementary school twenty minutes away. "The school district couldn't meet his needs, so they shipped him off to this classroom," she recalls.

But Cox felt it was not the place for Robert to learn how to cope in the real world. "There were no role models there," she says. "Each child had some sort of behavioral disorder--and children tend to mime each other's behavior. A child should be in a regular classroom with normal kids. That's how they learn."

Since that time, Cox has been a pain to Jefferson County's special-ed administrators. She talks with pride of a shouting and crying match during one meeting last year. She says she has gotten threatening phone calls from Jeffco special-ed honchos and once had a teacher threaten to quit if Cox persisted in her drive to get the district to include all children of a similar age in the same classroom.  

Three years ago, thanks to her agitation, her son began attending some classes with typical kids at Betty Adams. To Cox, however, that still wasn't good enough. Last year she and three other families with special-needs children yanked their kids out of the Adams special-ed communications center, marched them across the hall to the regular classrooms and asked the district to hire additional aides. Since then, says Cox, "they've all done well."

"The kids all accept them," she says. "It's the adults we're trying to educate here."

To many people, educational inclusion is a natural extension of the battles for racial desegregation that began forty years ago. "This is a civil-rights issue," says Judy VanDeWeghe, a Jefferson County parent trying to start a charter school stressing full inclusion. "It's a discrimination issue. At the root of all this is the fear of difference."

As was the case with racial desegregation, many people now pushing for greater inclusion of the disabled in public schools have become dogmatic because there's so much catching up to do. Despite two decades of trying to treat kids individually, for instance, federal regulations still tag handicapped kids with thirteen distinct labels, from autism to visual impairment, that are supposed to define the particular disability of each child.

Inclusion is simple in theory. Instead of having two distinct public educational systems, regular ed and special ed, proponents believe that every student ought to be in a single system with kids their own age. The various supports that some children might need, such as physical therapists, teacher's aides, social workers, would come into the classroom and provide the necessary assistance.

Yet the idea has been difficult to install. Jean Parker, head of the Colorado Cross-Disabilities Association, says her organization began banging against Jeffco's walls in particular because the district wasn't closing the gap soon enough. "It became more and more apparent that a lot of people were experiencing the treatment that was outlawed twenty years ago," she says.

Much of the recent campaign against Jeffco has revolved around trying to close down the district's Miller, Walters and Weiland schools. The Association for Community Living (the local ARC chapter) vowed to shut them a half-dozen years ago after convincing Denver to close its last such school. Although that pressure has since dissipated, the parents' and advocacy groups calling for full integration of handicapped students recently have begun to step up their efforts once again.

Last month the Cross-Disabilities Association and several parents picketed the annual convention of the Council on Exceptional Children in Denver because the council has refused to endorse a mission statement embracing full inclusion for all students. And last year a group of parents submitted a similar mission statement for the state board of education to adopt, which the board refused.

Such official resistance to an idea as simple as permitting disabled kids to learn alongside children who aren't puzzles true believers. "If we define inclusion as being part of the community school and having appropriate role models versus segregation, then it's really hard to say that inclusion is really not good for some kids," says Marsha Tewell, a parent advocate associated with the ACL. "If inclusion is carried through properly, there's nothing bad about it."

end of part 1

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