SPECIAL-ED KIDS NOW QUALIFY FOR HONOR SOCIETY; LAS VIRGENES CHANGES POLICY.
Flipping flashcards on world history or reviewing spelling lists, Linda Landman's daughter has spent countless hours at the dinner table studying for her hardest classes.
While math and science come easily to the 12-year-old, she has been in special-education courses in social studies and language arts ever since she was diagnosed with a learning disability in her first year of elementary school.
Still, the girl worked hard, earned good grades and made the honor roll at Lindero Canyon Middle School last year. She said she also had expected her grades to qualify her for the California Junior Scholastic Federation, a prestigious statewide honor society whose members attend science field trips during the school year.
``I wanted to go because I like learning science and because all my friends were going,'' said Landman's daughter, who asked that her first name not be used.
So the Landman family couldn't understand when school administrators denied their daughter's application to the federation and to the field trip in February. Officials told Landman that because special-education courses were considered remedial, the grades her child earned were excluded from the honor society's application process. And without those grades, she didn't have enough credits to qualify.
``Parents have to teach their kids that they can do anything they set out to do. I always have,'' said Landman, who initiated a campaign on behalf of her daughter.
``If you work hard in your classes and earn top grades, you're doing honors work,'' she said. ``If that's the way the schools are going to determine who gets to go on the best field trips, well, we want to have a chance at it, too.''
Landman not only succeeded in getting her daughter into the federation and onto the field trip roster, she helped change district policy. Earlier this month, the Las Virgenes Unified School District adopted rules ensuring that the district's 1,100 special-education students are eligible for membership in the honor society.
Founded 30 years ago, the California Junior Scholastic Federation counts more than 50,000 members from some 1,500 middle schools statewide, rewarding their academic excellence through field trips and group activities. Based in Huntington Beach, the organization is an extension of the California Scholastic Federation, founded in 1921 as a service organization for high school students.
``Because we are a scholastic society, we do not feel students enrolled in remedial courses or students who repeat courses qualify,'' said Bill Raabe, president of the CSF/CJSF state board. ``But nowhere in the lexicon of the CSF/CJSF does the term `special education' even appear. Student membership is accepted based on what CSF or CJSF advisers and school principals tell us about the level of the courses a student completes.''
But the organization's general membership guideline didn't adequately address the issue of special education, said Joseph Nardo, director of pupil services for the Las Virgenes district.
``We needed to come up with a policy to preserve the integrity of the honors federation while not excluding a group of students with special needs from our school's program,'' Nardo said.
``You cannot routinely blanket out a group of students from a program,'' he added. ``That's discrimination.''
Meeting resistance from school administrators at the middle school, Linda Landman turned first to the school district, then to the California Department
of Education and, ultimately, to the federal Office of Civil Rights.
``Any parent of a special-education student knows how important self-esteem is,'' Landman wrote in a letter sent to the agencies in February. ``The fact that she qualified for the honor roll in her first semester in the middle school was a fabulous moment for my daughter. When she discovered that unlike other honor roll students, she would not be allowed to attend (the field trip), she was shattered.''
In March, the school board voted to allow Landman's daughter to join the federation and participate in the field trip. And the following month, the board signed a voluntary resolution plan with the Office of Civil Rights to establish a policy to address similar cases in the future.
``This policy was adopted by this school district to ensure that students with disabilities in its schools are not discriminated against,'' said Stella Klugman, equal opportunities specialist with the Office of Civil Rights.
In the past, applications to the CSF and CJSF were not distributed to special-education students. In some cases, application forms expressly indicated that those students were ineligible to participate.
According to the district report issued in April, the 13 Las Virgenes schools counted 1,135 special-education students, comprising those with learning disabilities, developmental disabilities and disabling illnesses.
Lindero Canyon and A.E. Wright middle schools - the two junior high schools in the district where students can join the CJSF - have about 272 special-education students with minor learning disabilities, dyslexia and processing difficulties.
For teacher Evelyn Klein, recognizing and rewarding scholastic achievement is just as important to special-education students as it is to scholars enrolled in the mainstream courses.
``An honors society can be based on the efforts any of our students puts forth, to their loyalty and dedication to learning,'' said Klein, a special-education teacher at Yerba Buena Elementary School in Agoura Hills. ``I think this policy is great.''
The new district policy ensures that honor society applications will now be distributed to all interested students. Teachers and administrators then will determine the eligibility of each special-education student.
``If it gives more kids who are working hard an opportunity to be recognized, then this is good,'' said Michael Botsford, principal at A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas.
However, other school administrators and CSF/CJSF representatives expressed initial reservations over the new policy.
Raabe, outgoing president of the CSF/CJSF, said the state board intends to review the district's policy in coming months because it was implemented by the Las Virgenes district and the Office of Civil Rights without consulting the honor society.
Linda Landman said she considers the policy a triumph for her daughter and for the self-esteem of special-education students throughout the district. But Landman added that she is dismayed that the school district waited so many years before addressing the issues.
``What were they waiting for?'' she said. ``How many kids have missed out on these trips over the years? How many parents never knew about it because the application form was not passed out in their kid's classroom?''