Shortly after 9 o'clock each morning in Paula Campbell's classroom in Houston, Michael sets off on his daily task: rolling his wheelchair slowly across the room, he deposits the class attendance slip in a slot at the door.
Even with the encouragement of teaching aide Mary Pendleton ("C'mon, Michael, you can do it!") it may take the mentally and physically handicapped child eight minutes.
While 9-year-old Michael concentrates, Campbell devotes her attention to Joseph, a smiling boy with a low IQ who cannot talk. The lesson, conveyed by voice and sign language, is how to brush one's teeth.
"Our program is functional living skills," said Campbell, who has three other severely handicapped children in her class at T. H. Rogers School.
Joseph, a 10-year-old who is her least physically disabled pupil, "is capable of doing a lot of things--with supervision," said Campbell. "His mom wants him to be toilet trained, and we're working on that a great deal."
Such are the battles special education teachers wage in public schools across America with tens of thousands of handicapped children: They teach not the ABCs, but the most basic tasks of life.
Self-Sufficiency Is Goal
The challenge is to give handicapped youngsters the survival skills and self-confidence to avoid institutions or dead-end workshops before they turn 22. At that age, the legal right to "a free, appropriate education" expires.
For many, the goal is a job in a fast-food restaurant or similar workplace where a capacity for repetitive work is an asset.
In Newport, Ore., vocational teacher Jan Eberhard lines up jobs for her students in a supermarket, sorting aluminum cans and tending plants.
In a kitchen at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, job coaches from Montgomery County's Rock Terrace School smooth the way for handicapped youths to become regular, paid help.
The Huntington Beach Special Center in Orange County, Calif., sends pairs of students with a teacher to practice cleaning up the beach.
"Some kids take chemistry to learn to be a doctor someday," said Mary Falvey Fuller, a special-education professor at California State University, Los Angeles. "Other kids take a class and learn how to work at Taco Bell."
Aim for Simple Objectives
Success, to the severely handicapped, is learning how to cross streets, ride buses, shop in a grocery store and acquire rudimentary job skills.
For Julie Cupples, getting five retarded students from a special class at Santa Monica High School to venture out to a nearby shopping mall for lunch was "a quantum leap." It was three years before she felt comfortable letting them make the journey alone.
"Street-crossing," said Cupples, "isn't a skill you can do with 80% accuracy."
In West Union, Iowa, Bonnie Schmalle has turned her classroom for mildly retarded students into a cottage industry called the "Corny Cookie Corner." The students bake bread and cookies and make caramel corn, which they sell to local merchants to earn pocket money while they learn job skills.
For most of them, the transition from the accepting world of public school to adult life will be bumpy.
The National Assn. of State Directors of Special Education surveyed its members last year and reported that more than 80% of them believed that "a severe discrepancy exists in their states between the number of people needing adult day training, treatment or supported work programs and the capacity of adult service systems to meet the needs of exiting students."
The state directors said the gaps were causing some families "to now question their early decisions to keep their children in public schools."
'Life Planning' Program
Florence Needles, an administrator for Los Angeles County, said: "I've had principals call me and say that they've had parents in their offices crying the day after graduation: 'Now what do I do? What happens now to my child?' "
To avoid such anguish, the county now starts what it calls "life planning" when seriously handicapped students are 13.
A county pamphlet bluntly raises the questions parents must face as their retarded children grow up: "Where will my child live as an adult? What can my daughter do to earn a living? What will happen to my child when I die? . . . . Who will help my child understand the facts of life?"
Some educators say their biggest struggle is in persuading parents to let their handicapped children grow up.
"My No. 1 enemy in this job is the parent. Absolutely," said Eleanor Fearman, a career education teacher with Los Angeles County.
She said one former student had to quit a job at a VA hospital because his parents were afraid to let him ride the bus home after dark.
Parents Too Protective
"I fought these parents the entire way through school," she said. "I fought them to let me put him in a job. I fought them every step of the way to let him move on. And now he's out of my control and they made him quit the job. He's sitting at home right now."
The movement toward social integration of the retarded that began in the late 1960s has dramatically affected public schools. The average age of those left in state institutions has risen from 9 to 17, as more and more families kept retarded children at home and others were moved into foster care and group homes.
Even some of those left in institutions are bused daily to local public schools for special education. Teachers and aides are called upon to diaper, spoon feed, even catheterize some of the most severely handicapped children.
What benefit do such children get from public school?
"They get on and off a bus twice a day. That experience in itself is a normalizing experience," said Suzanne C. Frumess, Houston's assistant superintendent for special education. "They hear different noises. They see different people. They feel different temperatures."
Technology Opens Doors
Veteran special educators point out that computers and other teaching tools have opened communication even for those who cannot speak, gesture or move their limbs.
"In the last 10 or 20 years, all of our assumptions of what severely handicapped people are capable of have changed," said Madeleine Will, assistant U.S. secretary of education in charge of $3 billion in programs for the handicapped. Her department has thrown its weight behind efforts to expand supported employment projects.
Marilyn Armstrong, a special-education administrator for Los Angeles County, said: "Trainable mentally retarded students are doing some very complicated things, like assembling computer boards. It's just how you break down the task for them to do it."
Don Griffin, a career education program counselor for Los Angeles County, said that schools used to chart handicapped youngsters' progress by how many blocks they could stack.
"At a certain age, a kid can stack two blocks. When he gets a little older and develops better coordination, he can stack eight blocks. By the time they graduate they can stack 16 blocks, but who cares? It's unrelated to what's going on, in terms of their lives," he said.
Some Training Outdated
The prospects for many remain uncertain, even after years of expensive training.
Lois McDermott, an assistant manager of special education for Minnesota, said: "The biggest weakness is kids are being trained to turn screws, and there are no jobs anymore for that kind of work."
Bins of nuts and bolts are still a standard feature of many classrooms for the retarded. Some teachers view the assembly work as essential to their training.
Several youths were quietly performing such tasks in a classroom at Wilson-Pacific School, a school for the handicapped in Seattle. The teacher, Gloria Loveless, said: "Working with their hands, putting things together, taking things apart, gives them a feeling of being able to do something. If we were sitting working on ABCs, that's their failure point. They would be in an uproar."
At Houston's 1,600-student Louie Welch Middle School, in a so-called "behavior intervention class," two teachers and two aides worked with eight retarded or autistic teen-agers in monotonous activities such as screwing nuts and bolts together and arranging parquet patterns.
Students Earn Rewards
Sherry Lamb's class offers instant rewards in the form of snacks, access to games and music or other treats.
Gene, 19 and the oldest in the class, had just rung his bell to signal that he had earned the four tokens needed to spend five minutes looking at a magazine or listening to records.
Others performed the tasks so they could later play with nail polish or perfume, or spend a few minutes "stimming," or self-stimulating, with a bucket of colored buttons.
Marshall assembled parquet patterns to be allowed to wear sunglasses.
"It does the trick," the teacher said. "Maybe he feels like he's in another world, or he can't see me."
The behavior intervention classes at Welch are down a corridor at one end of the huge junior high school. The worlds of special and regular education seldom cross, except in the restrooms and cafeteria, and even there the handicapped students "sit at a designated table," Lamb said.
Critics say that whatever attention the handicapped get in separate classes, they suffer by not being around regular classmates. In schools that have both regular and special classes, teachers often recruit "regulars" as helpers.