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Faculty Suggest Solutions
for Kids at Risk
October 4, 1999

Investing a fortune in UConn's School of Education wasn't a decision made lightly by Ray Neag.

He has said repeatedly that it was a strategic business investment in a university on the move, in leadership in which he has the utmost confidence, and in a school of education he believes is on the path to creating better schools for children.

So, as part of the Neag School of Education naming festivities, the school sponsored an afternoon symposium focused on children placed at risk. Richard Schwab, dean of the school, who served as moderator for the event, placed blame on poverty, violence, parental neglect and inadequate schools for putting youth at risk of failure in the classroom.

Charting a new course for the nation's troubled classrooms and dramatically decreasing the number of children placed at risk, according to presentations made by four Neag faculty members, will require changes in the classroom, in teacher education, and in attitude.

Special Education
For 30 years, Lee McLean, professor of educational psychology and director of the A.J. Pappanikou Center for Disability Studies, has been devoted to special education and early childhood program development. She outlined what she described as the three faces of special education: the good, the bad and the ugly.

"Much good has come to children in the last 40 years," said McLean, "because research in special education has led to improved teaching methods and technologies that help students with disabilities learn."

The bad is what she characterized as the self-fulfilling prophecy when children live up or down according to our expectations for them.

"When we label children as special education, when we remove them from the education mainstream and put them in a classroom called special education, a funny thing happens. We begin to see lowered expectations and watered-down curricula," said McLean.

Also, on McLean's bad list is the cost of special education programs. In a five-year period, special education expenditures in the state increased almost 30 percent, while general school costs increased 19 percent.

The ugly side of special education is how it has been used as a way to exclude minorities from general education classrooms. McLean pointed to state statistics that show African-American children represent 13 percent of the children in Connecticut classrooms. Yet, of those labeled as mentally retarded, a disproportion ate number, 30 percent, are African-American.

McLean's vision for the 21st century is a unified system of education that would begin in the early childhood years and bring the best of what has been learned in special education research to all children.

Health and Wellness
The next century will be an unhealthy one, if changes aren't made in schools and at home. That warning came from Jaci VanHeest, assistant professor of kinesiology.

"They are weighing in as less fit and more fat than ever," said VanHeest who spends many of her research hours focused on children and obesity.

Recent studies have shown that the number of "couch potato kids" is on the rise. Also bulging is the number of children who are developing diseases that were once reserved for adults, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and Type II diabetes. She believes communities need to make a philosophical shift and return to the days when every school required physical education.

"It is critical that school systems put the fourth "R" back into education - Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic and Recreation," she said, but that's not enough. She urges schools to integrate physical education with other classes, such as mathematics and science, that would enhance the student's understanding of overall well being.

"It is imperative that we reeducate children to develop a participatory love of sport," said VanHeest, who believes that over time, it will result in healthier children and adults.

Educating Diverse Populations
She's heard the stories from hundreds of children - moments in the classroom that have left emotional scars - children of many ethnic backgrounds, whose self-confidence and self-esteem were crushed by a thoughtless or unknowing comment made by a teacher.

Teachers need better training to handle issues of diversity, according to Xae Alicia Reyes, associate professor of curriculum and instruction.

"Children and teachers enter classrooms with their own cultural values, practices and perceptions," said Reyes. She said a teacher's lack of knowledge about a child's background and lack of training in how to embrace diversity can lead to missed opportunities for all children in the class.

Of the 53 million children in the nation's classrooms, nearly 25 percent are not native speakers of English.

"One needs to be concerned about the quality of education and that equal opportunities are available to all of our students," Reyes said.

Her solution would be to ensure that teacher training include strategies for dealing with diverse populations, while teachers in the classroom be provided with the resources to enhance the child's learning.

High-End Learning
Ram, remember, regurgitate - the thought of this popular teaching strategy is enough to make Joseph Renzulli, Neag Professor of Gifted Education and Talent Development, shudder. It's the method many schools use to boost achievement test scores yet, after spending billions of dollars, scores, for the most part, are at some of the lowest levels in years.

"The damage we do with this dumbed-down, one-size-fits-all curriculum is that we cause so many people to lead dreary, un-challenging, unfulfilled school lives, which may transfer into their adult lives," said Renzulli.

He believes, and his research shows, that the emphasis in schools should be on developing the interests and abilities of children, not in getting test scores up. Renzulli and his colleagues at the Neag Center have developed an array of teaching strategies originally designed to develop the abilities of gifted students that, when used in the general classroom, maximize learning for all students, whether they're learning disabled, average or gifted students.

"The business of schools," said Renzulli, "is developing talent in young people, and all of the other things will fall into place."

Janice Palmer