L.A. Unified to shutter 200 classes, campus for disabled students


With its fountains, gardens, playgrounds, murals and spotless walkways, Frances Blend School in Hollywood looks more like an oasis than a battleground over the future of education for the disabled.

The well-ordered campus for young blind students conveys the message that no detail, no extra care, is too trivial or wasted in helping the neediest in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

This level of care, intermittent districtwide, grew out of decades of effort by educators and advocates, who sometimes sued the district to secure rights.

But now officials plan to spend much less on the disabled: 200 classes will be shut down, as well as a specialized campus, the West Valley Special Education Center. Blend also faces cutbacks; but just as alarming as these overt moves, critics say, is a pervasive focus on saving money by limiting services to individual children.

Parents, advocates and attorneys have rallied to complain about the cutbacks, even enlisting the star power of actor Ed Asner, whose grandson is in a special education program.

The cutbacks are part of broader budget reductions across the school system to close a multimillion-dollar deficit. The results will include increased class sizes, decimated art and music programs, closed libraries and an expected 1,000-plus layoffs.

Meanwhile, serving the disabled costs more than the state and federal governments pay for. The overrun for this year is $628 million from the general fund, which is intended for the district’s regular program.

Officials assert that they have to reduce expenses, but they also insist that they are helping disabled students as the law requires and have even improved some services.

At Blend, recent enhancements include gardens outside every classroom. One room has been outfitted like an apartment so students can learn skills such as making beds, washing clothes and cooking meals.

The blind often can be accommodated at regular schools, but Blend students have multiple disabilities: Some are emotionally unstable, some are deaf, some don’t speak, some don’t walk.

But they all do physical education, a few under screening that shields albino students from sunburn. On a recent day, a 9-year-old girl with an unerring sense of direction steered a tricycle around the playground. A group shot baskets, cheering each time a thump announced ball hitting backboard.

The school’s curriculum is diluted as little as possible.

“Our students have potential,” said Blend principal Nancy Cohen. “We have so many special strategies that we use here. And many can graduate and go to a general education site, which is our goal for every student.”

Cohen was included on a list of cuts for next year, along with her plant manager, office manager and a clerk. Her small school was to be overseen by adjacent Van Ness Elementary, which has 280 students, including 44 special education students of its own.

“Blend has one adult to every three kids,” said L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines. “Some of those are very, very severe cases, but you have to look at it in perspective. When you fund some of the special ed things, you’re taking from regular kids.”

Parent Linda Grossman called the consolidation plan “a huge mistake.” Blend “is a very specialized school. Everything works so well. My daughter loves coming here. My fear is that it’s just going to fall apart.”

She recalled the school’s fast, sure response when her daughter choked and needed to be hospitalized.

After complaints from parents and media inquiries about planned cutbacks, Cortines backed down somewhat, agreeing to let Cohen stay at reduced pay while removing the part-time assistant principal.

About 13% of students in the nation’s second-largest district have a recognized disability. And their education has long been a sensitive subject.

The federal government requires a “free and appropriate” individual program for disabled students but pays only about 17% of the added cost.

In settling the landmark 1993 Chanda Smith lawsuit, the district acknowledged widespread deficiencies in the education of disabled students and agreed to pay for an independent monitor. Current monitor Fred Weintraub has generally commended district progress but said he would assess the effect of budget cuts.

Ongoing independent reviews describe incremental but real progress through the 2008-09 school year.

The number of fully qualified special education teachers increased from 71% to 89% over five years. More disabled students are taking part in a state testing program, more students are getting timely evaluations and parents are receiving faster responses to complaints, according to the independent monitor.

An apparent boost arrived last year in the form of $152 million in one-time federal funds for disabled students. Some of the money went for staff training and purchasing speciali equipment. But most of it went to the general fund to offset some of the ongoing costs of special education.

The closing of 200 classrooms will likely force thousands of children into longer commutes to other schools, where average class sizes could grow substantially. At the same time, the district is reducing busing for disabled children to save as much as $7.4 million.

Larger classes would save $24 million next year but teachers will have to manage a wider age range and additional disabilities.

Small classes and individual attention make a difference. At Blend an aide steadied and sometimes held up an obese girl so she could walk on a treadmill to build up leg strength. A few weeks before, she had displayed warning signs of an approaching diabetic coma, but staff quickly summoned the on-site nurse and paramedics.

Critics, including some district employees, say it’s becoming harder to get the appropriate help for each child. They claim that changes in the forms that set out a student’s special education plan appear designed to reduce costs by limiting needed options.

Sophisticated or better-off parents can challenge district decisions through lengthy “due process” procedures, said attorney Valerie Vanaman, who specializes in representing disabled children.

But low-income or non-English-speaking parents will be disproportionately harmed, she predicted.

“This is truly the worst I’ve ever seen,” Vanaman said of the district’s new approach. “All decisions as to what to offer a family are being made on a policy basis by administrators who don’t know that child … We’re going to have kids with hugely divergent needs and disabilities in the same classroom with a minimum of services.”

The district defends its new version of the legally required forms as easier to understand.

But Weintraub, the independent monitor, said it’s “hard to track the level of services that are supposed to be provided. Somehow that’s lost.”

As in past years, Weintraub officiated at recent special education public hearings. The hundreds assembled spoke passionately of harms from recent or proposed budget cuts.

“These are tough times,” said Weintraub, “for all of us who care about schools.”