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After public outcry, state won't grade centers for educating disabled students

TAMPA — The state is dropping a move to grade the centers that educate disabled students, capping a week of outrage as Florida tries to revamp how it grades public schools.

"That's off the table," Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said Friday.

A list released this week showed many of the special education centers, including those in Tampa Bay, earning "F" grades if the new rules were in place. That struck a nerve across the state.

"It's awful," Hillsborough County School Board Chairwoman Candy Olson said. "It's appalling."

But the issue of how to judge the instruction of disabled students remains a sensitive one as the Florida Board of Education on Tuesday will consider numerous revisions to the state's school grading formula.

Schools give standardized tests to the state's more than 250,000 disabled students. Some take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, while others take alternative tests. School grades now reflect the progress disabled students make. The main difference, under the new plan, is that proficiency would also be considered.

Speaking briefly Friday, Robinson said that in general, it makes no sense to hold schools accountable for the performance of some students and not others.

"We created schools to educate children," he said. "Why wouldn't we want to include all children in the process?"

But Robinson drew the line at grading exceptional student education centers. "I looked at the list, and I said this is not something I can support," he said.

In changing the grading system, state officials are trying to satisfy conditions of a waiver they obtained from the federal No Child Left Behind law. Told to consider all students in their system, they crafted a plan that touched a wide range of issues, from a different formula for the graduation rate to "F" grades for schools that do not have at least 25 percent of students reading at grade level.

Especially offensive to some parents and school officials were the provisions affecting special education students.

The co-founder of Hillsborough's Pepin charter schools for learning-disabled students was incredulous when told of the list. "I cannot believe this would pass," Crisha Scolaro said. "To consider grading us would be horrific."

Some parents of special education students fear the changes still under consideration could make their children vulnerable, as schools will not want to see their grades drop.

"As a parent, it's very difficult to find a school for an ESE child," said Michelle Bergier, whose son attends a high-performing school in Hillsborough County.

"I want to know, from the state, what incentives are you giving our school to keep its ESE students?"

While aware of these fears, Robinson said the new plan includes incentives for schools to serve those students and disincentives that kick in if they leave.

"The important thing," he said, "is, where is that student going to be five or 10 years from now."

Charles Derexson of Largo, president of the Florida PTA, sees the plan as a step backward in the fight to give disabled children a mainstream education.

"We've made so much progress in getting children included and into the classroom," said Derexson, who raised two sons with learning disabilities.

"I'm afraid that this move would take away from that."

Harsh reactions are coming from people of various political backgrounds.

"I'm a conservative Republican and I'm in line with their policies," said Scott Tobia of Apollo Beach, whose daughter has a cellular disorder. "But you don't have to penalize people who have challenges. There's no reason for that. It's wrong."

But that sentiment is not unanimous. Judy Owen, advocacy vice president for the Pinellas County PTA Council, supports the state plan even though the PTAs are opposing it.

The mother of a 7-year-old son with Down syndrome, Owen said, "I think the idea of making the bar higher for all students is a good one. People are too quick to identify what a student with a disability can and cannot do."

Also backing the plan — and trying to stem the backlash — is the Foundation for Florida's Future, the public policy group founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The organization estimates that since accountability measures were broadened in Florida, the number of students with disabilities reading on or above grade level has risen significantly, and the percent who cannot has dropped by 20 percent.

"The same arguments we heard in 2004, we're hearing again today," says a position statement from the organization. "But the results speak for themselves."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3356.

After public outcry, state won't grade centers for educating disabled students 02/24/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 24, 2012 10:33pm]

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