Special Education in the Baltimore City High Schools: Perspectives, Challenges, Recommendations

December 2005 / Abell Reports / Education

At stake: the education due every student; the taxpayers’ dollars to support it; the viability of Baltimore City’s work force.

The performance of high school special education students in the Baltimore City Public Schools System (BCPSS) is reaching a critical point. Starting with this year’s freshman, high school students must pass Maryland’s new High School Assessments (HSA) in order to graduate. Roughly a third of special education students in BCPSS graduate, and now those students who would otherwise graduate may be denied diplomas.

Often high schools are low on a district’s reform agenda because educators understand the importance of early intervention and prevention. However, BCPSS and local partners are putting high schools in the spotlight. In particular, the current wave of high school reform in BCPSS began with the 2001 Blueprint for Baltimore’s Neighborhood High Schools. The Blueprint called for the redesign, transformation and revitalization of Baltimore’s neighborhood high schools and the creation of new Innovation high schools, which would be run by outside operators. The first restructured zoned high schools opened in the fall of 2002, and the first Innovation high schools opened in the fall of 2003.

This is an opportune moment to examine how high school reform has affected special education students. First, the high school reform effort has been in place long enough to begin to examine some preliminary findings. Second, the spotlight has turned back to special education in Baltimore because of recent findings that in 2004-2005, many more students with disabilities failed to receive required services such as speech therapy and counseling than in the years before. This represents a major setback in BCPSS’ success at meeting the requirements of the long-standing special education court case typically referred to as Vaughn G.

Recent developments in Baltimore and at the federal level also place additional responsibility on BCPSS. The court-ordered remedy in the Vaughn G. case, which gives the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) a significant role in special education decision-making, means that the school system is in significant transition as competing goals and working relationships are sorted out. In addition, proposed regulations for the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) came out in the summer of 2005, and any significant changes from the previous version of the law will require a great deal of retraining at the district and schools levels. These changes will put extra strain on the district’s capacity, at least in the short term, and may hinder its ability to act on all the needs identified in this report. The future isn’t bleak though. BCPSS has made improvements even with budget shortfalls, and district officials are eager to continue to work toward providing a better education for Baltimore’s students with disabilities.