Chapter 1

THE SPECIAL EDUCATION LEARNING CENTER
OF THE HARTFORD PUBLIC SCHOOLS

School and Community Setting

The City of Hartford is a northeast urban area of 140,000, located halfway between Boston and New York City, which has seen significant deterioration in its capital stock. It is in the process of major urban renovation, a process which began 20 years ago. Unlike other school systems which continue to experience population decline, Hartford's school population of 25,000 continues to expand from a low of 24,500 in 1981. This expansion is due to apartment rehabilitation and new home construction. In a recent study conducted by the Community Council of the Capitol Region (1986), it was found that 40 percent of Hartford's children are being raised in poverty, compared with less than four percent in the 26 surrounding towns. Hartford has become the receiving area for the area's poor, and middle income people continue to out migrate from the city to the suburbs.

    With that out migration, come many of the traditional problems experienced by large eastern urban areas. Hartford continues to experience a loss in tax base, while educational services become more expensive. Hartford had less than 2,000 students identified as in need of special education services in 1976, and has over 4,000 today - the largest identified group within a single school system in the State of Connecticut. Its bilingual program now offers specific programming for students from 15 different linguistic backgrounds. Seventeen thousand students receive a free or reduced price lunch, and seven elementary schools are also provided with a free school breakfast. Hartford, as many other large urban school systems, has had to provide an increasing array of services each year.

    The school system provided education in the 1985-?86 school year for its 25,000 students in 33 schools, with a teaching staff of 1,600, and an annual budget of $88 million - an expenditure of $3,520 per pupil.

The Special Education Learning Center

    The Special Education Learning Center (SELC) of the Hartford Public Schools is a group of therapeutic programs, located in two separate facilities, for students identified through the special education (PPT) process as having significant, violent/acting out behaviors. The PPT process is the recognized referral procedure as required by P.L. 94-142 which mandates a formal meeting involving the parent, and representatives from the professional groups of administration, instruction, and pupil personnel services in order to make the determination of, and program for, a special education student. After completing and reviewing appropriate evaluations and reports, this group makes program recommendations with specific academic, social, and behavioral goals which must be implemented by the school system through an Individualized Educational Program (IEP).

    Established in 1978 with five students and one teacher, the SELC now has 180 students served by a staff of almost 50. While the school is K-12, most of the students are found in the 7-9 grade range, and a majority of the population is male. Although academic abilities of the students span the full range found in most school systems, the student population seems to have a slightly higher than average intellectual potential. This finding is based on observation rather than testing, as violent/acting out students tend to perform poorly on standardized tests. While observing in a classroom setting, one notes students demonstrating a very strong sense of awareness of what is going on around them. Further, when given the opportunity, their manipulative skills show a very sophisticated ability to control their environment and people within it. Such manipulation requires above average intellectual functioning.

    While the students have been referred to the SELC for behavioral problems, the success of the intervention strategies is demonstrated by a significant decrease in behavioral incidents per pupil ? both in frequency and severity. Approximately one-third of the students are placed in less restrictive school environments each year, and of that number fewer than tan percent return to the SELC.

    Staff are selected for work in the SELC through a five step role play interview conducted by existing staff members who then have an important role in the final hiring decisions. Because the behavioral intervention techniques in the SELC are unique in public school education, candidates are not expected to demonstrate technique mastery during the initial interview. Rather, the role play interview process attempts to determine the psychological set of applicants, and their potential for working with a highly manipulative and violent population. Successful candidates demonstrate a strong and secure psychological character. They are not easily manipulated, do not show fear when confronted in a violent situation, and have a strong assertive personality. They are not “counseling types", but rather set immediate limits with minimal discussion. Physical strength or size is of secondary importance to psychological strength. Once selected, staff members go through an on-the-job training program including theoretical, observational, and hands-on training. Role playing continues to be an important training technique as staff members are introduced to new concepts and daily events are recreated as a teaching strategy and to improve program performance.

    The position of Principal of the Special Education Learning Center has the usual responsibilities of a public school principal. In addition to being the educational leader, the principal oversees budget, expenditures, staff hiring and evaluation, physical plant, and day-to-day school operations. Because of the unique environment of the SELC, the principal is also staff trainer, chief therapist, and a behavioral consultant to other schools within the system and nearby environs.

Regional/National Status of Problem Area

    The Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, published in conjunction with Phi Delta Kappa, has shown discipline to be the most important problem facing the public schools consistently for more than a decade. (Gallup, September 1984) In fact, the public has singled out lack of discipline as the schools' major problem in 16 of the 17 previous Gallup surveys.  While different geographical or economically distinct areas around the country may have different educational priorities, discipline is on everyone's list of the top ten.

    This concern goes beyond America's borders. In a similar study conducted in Canada in 1984, "lack of discipline" was seen as the second most serious problem (16.5%) with which Canadian schools had to deal, according to the 2,109 respondents, running very close to the most serious problem of drugs, smoking, and alcohol (17.2%). The third and fourth rated problems had percentages of 13.4 and 10.6. It is clear that the problem of lack of discipline ranks high. (MacLeod, 1985).

    In a survey of American teacher's attitudes toward the public schools in the same year, Gallup discovered an interesting attitude which complements the public's perceptions of the disciplinary problem. "Discipline problems in schools" was cited as the second greatest reason for teaching colleagues leaving the profession. (Gallup, October 1984)
 

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