Atlanta schools to audit its program for disabled

Mother wants more disabled students to be mainstreamed

Shawna Hayes-Tavares wants the same things every parent desires for her 7-year-old son, Menelik: a good education and an opportunity to earn a good living.

Her son, a first-grader at Atlanta's Slater Elementary School, however, is deaf.

Hayes-Tavares says the Atlanta school system too frequently isolates students with disabilities, which makes it tougher for them to succeed in their classes and as adults. District officials agree with much of her assessment.

Last month, the district asked for bids from companies interested in performing an audit of Atlanta's Program for Exceptional Children. Officials are reviewing the bids. The analysis could take three months to one year to complete, a district official said.

"We have to do all we can so [students] can be self-sufficient and productive," said Hayes-Tavares, who served on a special needs task force last year.

Atlanta officials say the district has improved the way it educates its estimated 4,300 students with disabilities, but there is still work to do. Only 24 percent of those students graduate, which is below the 38 percent statewide graduation rate for pupils with disabilities.

The scores of those students on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests rank in the middle when compared with the four largest school districts in metro Atlanta. The CRCT tests the academic proficiency of elementary and middle school students. Atlanta, however, is at the bottom in Georgia High School Graduation Test scores.

"We're making progress, but we're not where we want to be," said Arletta Brinson, executive director of the Atlanta district's office of student programs and services.

Hayes-Tavares believes more students would graduate if they were in classes with pupils without disabilities. The separation makes many students with disabilities feel inferior and they drop out, she said.

Brinson said the district has tried to increase the number of classes with both kinds of students. Those "collaborative classes" have two teachers.

"That is costly, but we want to do more of that," she said.

Hayes-Tavares said Atlanta must be more inclusive of students with disabilities. For example, she suggested the district could go a step further by setting aside positions on sports teams and other extracurricular activities for students with disabilities. But is it fair to put a student on the varsity baseball team when another student may be more qualified?

"It's totally fair because these children are facing unfairness their entire lives," Hayes-Tavares said. "What harm would it be to set aside a slot for a special needs child."

Bev Vaughn, executive director of a company that organizes athletic activities for students with disabilities in several school districts including Atlanta, said such an idea would be difficult. The district must decide which students with disabilities would be eligible to compete. It could also require rule changes to a particular sport, she said.

"Is it a reasonable accommodation or is it going to create an unreasonable accommodation [for] the activity?" said Vaughn, who runs the Atlanta-based American Association of Adapted Sports Programs.

Brinson said, teachers and administrators must work more collaboratively with parents.

District officials say they're excited about the audit because it will provide ideas that will help improve Atlanta's school system. So, too, is Hayes-Tavares.

"I want my son to know he can be a functioning, productive student," she said. "I want my son to have a regular diploma."

Test scores

Here's a breakdown comparing students with disabilities in Atlanta public schools with those in other school districts during the 2007-08 school year. This chart shows the percentage of student who passed the Georgia High School Graduation Test.

District English/Language Arts Math

Cobb 76.0 50.5

Gwinnett 65.4 48.9

Clayton 52.7 35.9

DeKalb 50.0 28.4

Atlanta 42.2 24.9

Source: Georgia Department of Education