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Special-needs students often first in portables

Like crowded schools all around Florida, Safety Harbor Middle School has portables for children who don't fit into the main building.

Who is on the outside? Mostly kids with learning disabilities, speech impairments or academic troubles. In fact, eight of Safety Harbor's nine portables _ all at the back entrance of the school _ are used for kids with special needs.

"If I had my druthers, I'd have everybody in my building," said principal Sally Barker, who put the special programs together because of the school's layout, the teachers' desire to be close together and other factors. "I can't have that. I have to have some folks outside."

Around Florida, other schools are choosing to use their portables as Barker does.

A St. Petersburg Times survey and computer analysis found:

+ When a school becomes crowded enough to need portables, it is the most vulnerable children _ the disabled, the troubled, the youngest _ who leave the main building first.

Among Tampa Bay schools just starting to feel the crunch _ those with three or fewer portables _ 51 percent of the portables were used for exceptional education, prekindergarten for poor children and other special programs, the survey found. Only when crowding gets worse are more "regular" students sent to the portables.

+ In some of Florida's small school districts with few portables, nearly all are used for special-needs classes.

+ Some special programs are in portables so old that the state deems them unsatisfactory. But children still go to school in them.

Portables that lack bathrooms and covered walkways have been widely decried, no matter what kind of students they hold. But some children face particular challenges. Educators tell of handicapped kids who can't make it to far-off bathrooms in time to avert an accident. Or children with chronic illnesses whose conditions are aggravated when they must venture out in the rain to get to the cafeteria.

The political debate over portables comes to a head today as the Legislature convenes for a special session on school crowding. So far, lawmakers have debated how appropriate portables are for kids in general. The issue of special-needs children in portables, however, has not come up.

School officials who choose to use portables for special education say they have simple and reasonable explanations. Special-needs classes often have fewer students. Portables are often small classrooms. Thus, the kids fit better.

Also, the number of kids with special needs and the number of programs to serve them is skyrocketing. That creates a greater demand for space for special programs.

Still, advocates fear that Florida's most vulnerable children are learning in inferior facilities.

For Marcia Beach, who heads the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities, the Times' findings raise concerns about possible discrimination against special-needs kids.

"They clearly should be part of the typical school environment and not segregated," said Beach, whose Tallahassee-based group fights for the legal rights of the disabled. "It's objectionable, highly objectionable."

Changing needs

Gov. Lawton Chiles has been drumming up support for today's special legislative session by highlighting some of Florida's jam-packed schools.

One of his favorite illustrations: Hunter's Green Elementary, a school in an affluent Tampa suburb where most of the 38 portable classrooms are filled with kids in regular academic programs.

That's not the whole picture. In public schools around the state, portables are filled with children in special programs, the result of a changing education world.

As more students with disabilities have entered the system, Florida has set up a myriad of programs for struggling students.

This is a maze so complex that the total picture is hard to see. Some students participate in two or more special programs, making an overall head count difficult.

Here are some of the numbers: About 160,000 kids struggling with English are in special language programs; more than 230,000 are in drop-out prevention programs. Exceptional education programs serve 323,000 children with various disabilities, about 15 percent of Florida's 2.2-million school population. Exceptional education for disabled children covers mental, physical and emotional handicaps, as well as speech, vision and hearing problems.

Some special programs for the disabled have grown twice as fast as the normal school population, creating huge demands for space.

Increasingly, officials have turned to portables as a solution.

In Tampa Bay, Pinellas County has the most special-needs children in portable classrooms, with 44 percent of all portables used for such programs. In Citrus, 42 percent of portables are used for special programs. In Pasco, 37 percent; Hillsborough, 33 percent; and Hernando, 25 percent.

When a school first feels the crowding pinch, its first portables frequently are filled with special-needs classes, the Times survey of five Tampa Bay counties found. Things even out as crowding gets worse: At schools with more than 10 portables, for example, 32 percent of the classes are for students with special needs.

Whether special-needs kids are disproportionately placed in portables, however, isn't clear. There are no figures that compare the number of children in portables versus permanent classrooms.

But in some parts of Florida, especially smaller school districts, nearly every portable is used to house students with special needs.

In Glades County in South Florida there are six portables. The School Board meets in one. The other five: poor kids who need remedial help. Gulf County in Florida's Panhandle has 10 portables, eight for special programs. Officials there are pleased with that ratio.

Said Gulf Assistant Superintendent Temple Watson: "Fortunately, we do not use our relocatables for what would be considered a regular classroom."

The Times survey also found discrepancies in some of the statistics the state does keep on special programs.

According to the Department of Education, Citrus County has no portables for exceptional education, one category of special-needs programs. But Citrus officials told the Times they use 36 percent of their 33 classroom portables for exceptional education.

A state list of portables says that Pinellas County uses 13 percent of its portables for exceptional education. The real number, according to the district: 28 percent.

Education officials say that sometimes they put special-needs children in portables so they can fit into their home schools, rather than being bused to a less crowded building.

"It's very common," said the state Department of Education's John Watson, who oversees school construction dollars. "I could tell you that without leaving my desk."

Difficult conditions

In the middle of Marion County, a special public school was set up for kids who are mentally handicapped, autistic or use wheelchairs. Hillcrest School was built for 50 kids. It now has 140 _ and 15 portables.

To principal Michael Barnett, it's not adequate. Some of his portables are 33 years old. Students in wheelchairs have difficulty maneuvering up ramps to get inside. Kids get wet when they move between classes, since the school lacks covered walkways.

"There's no question in my mind our program would be much more effective if our students weren't in portables," Barnett said. "There's lost time going places, we have some very ill kids and being out in the rain is certainly not healthy."

Such conditions aren't desirable for able-bodied children, either. But advocates for the disabled point to these factors as proof that vulnerable children can face even greater challenges in a portable than their peers.

Some tell stories of children with severe handicaps who have difficulty controlling their bladders. Without facilities in the portable, the kids sometimes can't make it to the restroom in time and have to change their clothes in front of their classmates.

Others talk about aisles so crowded, kids in wheelchairs would have difficulty leaving quickly in case of a tornado or fire.

"They are the last students that need to be placed there," said Karyn Pirrello, who last year chaired Pinellas County's special education advisory council.

Beyond the educational problems, advocates say there's another fear: Segregating children with special needs can amount to discrimination.

Exceptional students are protected under federal civil-rights laws. They are supposed to be in the "least restrictive" environment in consideration of their needs. That means that whenever possible, they're supposed to enjoy the same access to facilities. Merely being placed in a portable isn't discrimination. But if being in a portable segregates the special education kids from the rest of the school, advocates see trouble.

"If the segregation of the students is occurring . . . then we definitely would make the argument and succeed in court that it's discriminatory," said Beach, whose office helps those with disabilities fight for their legal rights.

Florida is also under a federal court order to provide adequate language instruction for kids who have trouble with English.

Lisa Gale, director of the state's multicultural student language programs, said her office monitors segregation issues. In the past, she has found language students disproportionately placed in portables. She knows of no current problems, but a new round of reviews is just beginning.

As a whole, the Department of Education does not check to see if there are disparities in how portable classrooms are being used. Department officials said they have heard of no complaints on the issue.

"We don't conduct that kind of review," said Shan Goff, bureau chief of exceptional education and other special programs. She said people with complaints have other avenues, such as civil-rights lawsuits.

At Dover Elementary School in Hillsborough County, principal Kathy Carr doesn't need a state review to know she's got a problem with her portables.

There are nine "unsatisfactory" portables on her campus _ defined by the state as having "compromising effects on the structural integrity, safety, or physical deterioration of a building." Three of Dover's unsatisfactory portables are used for special education.

Carr said that she doesn't like putting any of her kids in such portables, one of which is nearly 30 years old. Her teachers compensate by decorating the classrooms "enough to make them look presentable."

Should the kids be in unsatisfactory portables?

"In the best of all worlds, no," Carr said. "The fact is they are.

"If we built new facilities for them, it would be very good. It would be very nice."