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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."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer