|According to the 1999 federal department of Education guidelines, students
are classified as Special Education if they are diagnosed with the following
disabilities; Autism, deafness, mental retardation, hearing impaired, speech
impaired, visual impaired, orthopedically impaired, emotionally disturbed or
learning disabled. According to a 1997-98 study done by the consulting firm of
Compass conducted by John Verre, there are 13,713 students in Special
Education in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) and 1,039 students in the
Lab-Cluster programs totaling 14,752 students out of a total BPS population of
63,762. This means that 23.14% of the total student body in the Boston Public
Schools are in Special Education programs.
After reading a number of recent BPS student case histories from both the
Lab Cluster and Special Education programs at Brighton High School and
comparing them with case histories of mainstream, and "drop out"
students; it was surprising to find that approximately 85 % of these students
were diagnosed as either being "Emotionally Disturbed" or
The 1999 Department of Education Federal Register defines the context of
the term Emotionally Disturbed in the following manner:
(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory,
or health factors.
(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships
with peers and teachers.
(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal
or school problems.
(ii) The term includes schizophrenia.
(iii)The term does not apply to children, who are socially maladjusted, unless
it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.
After comparing hundreds of case histories of students who are currently
attending BPS Brighton High School (as well as those who dropped out) with
these Federal Guidelines, virtually none of the students who were referred
into the Lab Cluster exhibited the Federal Guideline characteristics. However,
all of those students did fit under a rather loose umbrella of being
emotionally disturbed. Upon analyzing the initial cause for their referral
into the Lab Cluster, what actually emerged was the portrait of many students
exhibiting Socially Maladjusted behavior.
While there are no Federal or State Guidelines for Socially Maladjusted
behavior, the Socially Maladjusted student's narratives were identical, with
virtually the same symptoms:
(A) regular use of profanities, cursing out teachers and peers,
(B) argumentative, constant talking, disruptive, disrespectful, rude,
(C) walking out of class, non-studious behavior,
(D) preventing teacher from teaching, many teacher/parent meetings,
(E) disturbing other students, being un-prepared for class,
(F) causing fights, threatening teachers or peers, physically striking
(G) many detentions, many suspensions etc.
What these symptoms actually revealed are two phenomenon: 1. The lack of
correct parental instruction; and 2. The school systems inability to construct
a corrective apparatus to respond to the Socially Maladjusted student. Other
forms of misdiagnoses that designate students to Special Education and the Lab
Cluster include classifying a student as Learning Disabled.
If we use the 1999 Federal Register from the Department of Education as a
beacon for diagnoses and classification, very few of the hundreds of case
histories of current Brighton high students would warrant them being
classified as learning disabled. Learning disabled according to federal
guidelines consist of the following;
(A) Visual-perceptual learning disability. Some students have trouble
making sense out of what they see. They see clearly, but they cannot organize
what they see into meaningful pieces or units. They can't put these units
together, or take them apart, or analyze them, or reorder them, and they can't
make sense of them. An example would be; "Imaginehowjohhnyfeelswhenhetriestoreadtheinstructions"
(B) Visual-Motor integration deficit. Is when a student can copy down the
lesson from the black board but it is all a mess. The student hand is not
doing as the eyes and brain instructs it. (C) Auditory memory deficit. A
teacher may give a student three instructions one at a time and the student
will perform them all perfectly. But, if the teacher give the student all
three instructions at the same time the student will only retain only one,
maybe two or none. This student memory processor simply can't hold enough
(D) Auditory discrimination deficit. The student cannot tell the difference
between the "D" sound and the "T" sound. Receptive. The
student cannot understand what people are saying to them, the language
processor is broken.
(E) Expressive language. The student cannot produce language, which others
can understand. The above classification rarely, if at all applies to any of
the narratives, which I have read of the many students who are currently
Brighton. But this last federal definition of learning disable surprise me by
accounting for roughly 80 to 90 percent of the narratives I have read. The
definition reads as follows; Learning disable occurs when there is a
significant difference between a student expected achievement (ability vs.
potential) and a student actual achievement. Also if a student is "two
grades behind academically he/she are automatically classified as learning
disable". How these students actually got behind is not even considered
important, was the causation agent due to environmental, mental, sickness,
After reading as many students files as I have over the last two years, a
clear and disntict picture has emerged as to what is happening to these
students. The themes in the majority these student cases are the same. Most
students who are referred to the lab-cluster or special education fall under
this last definition of learning disable, and most of these students are
referred between second and fourth grade, with the remainder being place
during in middle school. What became apparent to me after reading each student
case history was most of these students entered the first grade unable to
recite or recognize all the alphabets. Unable to count up to twenty, unable to
recognize and pronounce all of their colors, and most are unfamiliar with the
concepts of phonics. Virtually none of these students were reading at a first
grade level when they entered school, and academically behind is where all of
these students are today. So what is clearly an education issue has been
misdiagnose and placed as a special education problem. Students who do not
perform successfully in grade school choose to conceal their academic deficits
by acting out in class and thus were removed from the classroom, which caused
them to fall further behind. The solution teachers and principles have chosen
is to recommend that these socially maladjusted students receive more
individuals and group therapy, while their academics and behavior skills got
Because it is mandated by law that we provide an education to these
students, The Boston Public Schools have indiscriminately placed these
students in the Lab Cluster because they have no other corrective measures at
their disposal, thus creating a conundrum with The Lab Cluster, Special
Education and the blanket of misdiagnoses
THE NEED FOR THE LEARNING CENTER MODEL
The state of the current classroom climate at Brighton High school is
chaotic, disruptive, non-student / teacher friendly and with more time spent
on trying to get teens to pay attention, and get the classroom to come to
order than actual academic work going on.
As the Clinical Coordinator for Brighton, I talk to many students in the
corridors and generally monitor all of their behavior as well as measure the
pace of learning going on at the school. One young man, I was advising on the
quality of learning as it applies to life told me that the professionals are
spending all of their time on those who don't behave, rather than on those who
are really trying. This prompted the development the rethinking of our current
methodology, of allowing socially maladjusted students to occupy center stage
in the classrooms, preventing students who are genuinely trying to learn from
getting what they need. With the current deadline of 2003 quickly approaching
and high stakes testing the result of MCAS, there must be an emergency system
put in place to address socially maladjusted students and assist students who
truly are trying to learn.
THE LEARNING CENTER AS A SPACE
The Learning Center is a series of classrooms, which are specifically
staffed by teachers, clinicians and behavior specialist to handle any student
who refuses to comply with the classroom instructor. The Learning Center has
an academic focus and behavior containment component for implementation in all
schools. However, it will be most effective if begun at the elementary level.
The Learning Center is an educational support instrument with a primary
objective to assist the teacher in creating and maintaining proper classroom
climate during the pursuit of academic excellence. The Learning Center will
simultaneously hold each student personally responsible and accountable for
all of their non-academic behavior which occurred in the classroom they were
removed from, which prevented other classmates from learning.
The Learning Center differs from both the Special Education and Lab Cluster
programs because in those two programs disruptive students are either given
time out, or problems solving strategies. This inadvertently removes the
student completely from the learning experience. The Learning Center method
keeps the student's energy and efforts focused on learning and not on
non-academic issues. The student is not allowed to circumvent the learning
process via the issues route. Once a teacher has asked that a student be
removed from the classroom for non- academic behavior, the student proceeds to
the Learning Center where he/she must complete all of their assignments, from
all of their teachers for that day. There are no exceptions.
The Learning Center has Three Essential Principles:
(1) While assigned to the Learning Center the student must utilize correct
language, there can be no profanity, street language, threats, or personal
insults to staff or other students. The student must do the classroom work,
which each teacher has assigned. If all of their assignments are not completed
by the end of the school day, their time in the Learning Center is extended to
another day, and then another, until all of the work is done. The work must be
(2) Once assigned, the student does not leave the Learning Center for any
reason, except to use the bathroom. The reason for this is simple - by being
placed in the Learning Center, students now posses the identity of
non-achieving academic students. What is the primary reason for a socially
maladjusted student to be in school for six long hours when they are clearly
unsuccessful academically? For this student, school is simply a place to come
and socialize. This is why our current means of disciplining has no effect on
the socially maladjusted student. Detention, suspensions, parents / teacher
conferences are of no use - because socially maladjusted students do not value
or respect education. The Learning Center uses what the student values and
respects most as a device to force the student to correct their own behavior;
and what socially maladjusted students value most is their ability to move
freely and socialize throughout the school. The Learning Center makes these
two freedoms a privilege and not a right.
(3) Finally, while assigned to the Learning Center there can be no
incorrect physical behavior. If the student engages in temper tantrums,
destroying school property, throwing desks, throwing trash barrels or actual
fights, the student remains in the Learning Center at the discression of the
staff of the Learning Center. Once the student completes their school work,
uses correct school language and refrains from all aggressive incorrect
physical behavior, then the student is permitted to resume his or her regular
classroom rotation the next school day.
Another unique feature of the Learning Center is that it encourages
teachers to come to the Learning Center later during the period to reestablish
proper classroom expectation and behavior. This allows the disruptive student
and the teacher to build a relationship based on mutual respect and agreed
upon classroom behavior, rather than the current structure where the defiant
student demonstrates respect for the clinician or behavioral specialist, but
not for the teacher or the classroom.
This behavior/ academic approach keeps the impetus on the student learning
and not on his/her issues, which are generally a shield to keep attention from
the fact that the student is severely behind academically.
Another benefit from this system is it does not contribute to the student
remaining out of the learning loop, their academic and behavioral issues are
addressed and the student is put back on task quickly, and creatively.
The Learning Center approach will be most effective at the elementary school
level because it will prevent young students from developing a socially
maladjusted, non-achieving academic personalities. Using the three steps
mentioned, The Learning Center neutralizes the tactics that students currently
employ to get themselves removed from the learning arena. But most of all The
Learning Center will provide teachers, principles, and support staff with a
tool which to manage the socially maladjusted student.
THE NEED TO BREAK FROM TRADITIONAL PSYCHOTHERAPY
Psychotherapy, as a useful intervention tool which has proven to be quite
valuable if the students has been properly conditioned and socialize, and has
internalize proper social etiquette. Students who exhibit correct etiquette
norms also posses an important character trait, which is essential for
psychotherapy to be effective, and that quality is the ability to look inside
themselves and reflect. The ability to connect to the inner-self along with
self-awareness is critical if psychotherapy is to bring about the desired
improvement in the student's presentation. Psychotherapy is the correct
intervention if a student has been properly parented because the student
recognizes that as a member of the society an adult is entitle to be spoken to
and treated with dignity. We are asking psychotherapy to correct disruptive
behavior which is not a character trait, it is a discipline problem based on
the student never receiving proper social etiquette training from their
parent(s). As mentioned earlier, reading scores of psychosocial reports has
revealed that these students have received hundreds of man-hours in
traditional therapy and their behavior is worse today than it was when they
were first referred for therapy counseling. Psychotherapy as a intervention
aid has failed to help approximately 85 percent of the students who have been
in session. What psychotherapy has actually achieved is to affirm and validate
for the student that his/her bad habits were justified because they had issues
or someone or something made them mad.
What is quickly noticed from many teachers' comments throughout the
psychosocial case histories is that these are the students who have been
academically behind since they entered first grade. If you think about the
first or second grader who is sitting in a classroom for six hours each day
and is unable to comprehend or understand the information that the teacher is
presenting, this child actually has no choice but to act out. The acting out
actually becomes a shield for the student, preventing their fragile psyche
from having to acknowledging the truth that they are not reading, performing
math or writing on grade level.
Clinicians who cling to the issue driven paradigm do not recognize that
these students are masking their academic deficiencies in socially maladjusted
behavior. Nor do they recognize that these students use their therapy session
as a tactic to avoid the rigors of academic pursuit. Clinicians or behavior
specialists who do not fully understand the underlying dynamics usually
respond to any intentional disruption caused by the student by simply removing
the student from class. This solution actually exacerbates the student's
academic shortcomings and causes the student to fall further behind. Once
these students have lost connection with the correct student values, image,
identity, student routine and respect for the classroom experience, there is
virtually nothing a parent, teacher, or administrators can do to reverse this
transformation process. There are currently 1,039 students in the entire
Boston Public Schools Lab Cluster program, the Learning Center as an academic
focus/ behavior containment model has started to reverse this transformation
process with just 15 students at Brighton High School.