Takeover Bid In Chester Expected The Special Master For Chester Upland Schools Plans To Ask Pa. To Run The Special Ed Program. He Called It A ``tragedy.''

Posted: May 08, 1996

CHESTER — The court-appointed special master for the Chester Upland School District is expected to propose tomorrow that the state take over and manage the district's special education programs - including hiring and firing staff.

David Rostetter said he planned to release a 100-page proposal to district officials in which he will say that the drastic step, a first for Pennsylvania public education, is necessary due to the ongoing educational crisis.

``No place else in Pennsylvania is like Chester Upland. No place is as resistant to change and improvement,'' Rostetter said yesterday. The district ranks academically and financially near the bottom of the state's 501 public school districts.

``This is a real American tragedy. The students are not getting an education, the parents are treated badly, and it's very, very sad,'' he said.

Hands-on management is needed because nothing else has worked to bring the district into compliance with all state and federal education laws, as ordered in 1990 by the U.S. federal court, Rostetter said yesterday. His job as special master is to ensure compliance with the court order.

The district, which serves about 7,800 students from Chester, Chester Township and Upland Borough, continues to ignore special education laws, including provisions for testing procedures and counseling services, he said.

``At least 70 percent of the students in the secondary special-education program are not getting what is required'' by state law, Rostetter said. ``There are hundreds of elementary and middle school students not receiving special education services - many more who have not even been evaluated to determine if they need support services.''

For that reason, it is difficult to peg the number of students needing special education in the district, he said. Poor data collection makes it nearly impossible to determine how many are classified as special needs.

Many special education students ``are failing academically in one or more subjects,'' Rostetter said. ``They receive no adaptive physical education classes, no counseling, no specialized instruction - nothing to prepare them to succeed.''

Rostetter said state law requires that when a student fails one subject for two quarters or two subjects for one quarter, that student's education program must be reevaluated and corrective changes made.

In Chester Upland, students are allowed to fail for years without receiving assistance, he said. The current grade-point average for all Chester High School special education students is a D, he said.

``We can say, `These are the worst kids in America,' but the response, `We have done nothing about it' is still the problem,'' Rostetter said.

The case of Harlan Johnson, 14, a Chester High Academy freshman who suffers from brittle juvenile diabetes, is an example of the district's failure, Rostetter said.

District officials promised Johnson in writing that he would attend a school with an on-site nurse, small class size and tutoring to help his reading and math skills, he said.

The district was unprepared for Johnson at the start of the school year, so the boy spent his first three weeks of high school at home waiting for a class schedule. When the schedule arrived, Johnson, who has reading and math disabilities, was placed in Latin and algebra classes without any tutoring or extra academic support and as a result, failed the classes, Rostetter said.

Adaptive physical education classes, required by state law, were never provided, Rostetter said. Instead, Johnson was told to run laps and to sit down when he felt tired, which left him physically exhausted and in a state of near-coma, according to Theresa Johnson, the boy's mother.

Rostetter said the district has agreed that it cannot provide Harlan with a free, appropriate education as required by state law. Instead, the district will pay for him to attend a nondistrict school.

Marian Lane, the district's special education director, said she could make no comment on the case due to the privileged nature of student records and declined comment on any other aspect of Rostetter's report, referring all questions to him.

If approved, the state takeover of special education would be the third intervention in the district. Already, the district's finances are managed by a three-member state Board of Control, and the special education program is overseen by Rostetter.

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