1975: an important year.
The fall of Saigon signaled the end of the Vietnam War. A pilot episode of "Starsky and Hutch" featured actor Richard Ward as an African-American boss of white Americans for the first time on TV.
But for then-Penn State undergraduate student John Breen, it was President Gerald Ford's signing of a law ensuring "free and appropriate" education for children with disabilities that made 1975 remarkable.
"It was a juncture of how society cared for its most vulnerable people," said Breen, a licensed psychologist with a doctorate degree who serves as a school psychologist for Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8.
The law, known today as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, enabled children nationwide to return to their home communities from institutions. Children in state hospitals such as the ones in Ebensburg, Cresson and Somerset began attending public schools.
Over time, individualized special education plans were available to a broad range of children as psychologists and educators became increasingly aware of previously unobvious learning disabilities.
Special education students
The 2010-11 school year enrollments and percent of those in special education programs:
SchoolSpecial education students
Altoona Area1,523 (19.1 percent)
Hollidaysburg Area421 (12 percent)
Tyrone Area323 (16.6 percent)
Spring Cove299 (16.4 percent)
School District131 (24 percent)
Claysburg-Kimmel120 (13.7 percent)
Bellwood-Antis98 (7.8 percent)
Source: Bureau of Special Education,
Pennsylvania Department of Education
Nearly four decades after IDEIA was passed, less than 19 percent of Altoona Area School District's enrollment is for special education. And it's a struggle to keep special education students in school.
State: Reduce the rate
The state Bureau of Special Education audited the district last year. The result: District administrators were advised to take steps to reduce the dropout rate for students with disabilities enrolled in special education.
The dropout rate has been rising since the 2009-10 school year, when 29 students with special education plans were reported to have dropped out for a 23 percent dropout rate among special education students.
"It's a big deal to me if one student drops out," special education advocate Debbie Detrich said. She is the chairwoman of the Right to Education Task Force No. 8, serving special education students in Blair, Cambria, Bedford and Somerset counties.
In 2010-11, the latest state data available, the dropout rate for special education students ages 14 to 21 increased to 29 percent at Altoona. The state's average for that school year: 10.9 percent. Altoona's overall dropout rate is 2.12 percent or 76 of 3,585 students in grades 7 through 12.
Aside from Altoona, special education enrollment in Blair County school districts is no greater than Hollidaysburg Area's 421 students and dropouts so few that the state does not list the number to protect the children's identities in their communities.
Altoona Area's special education dropout rate, coupled with a higher-than-state-average population of students with disabilities recorded by the bureau, sets Altoona apart from other districts in the county and the state.
Altoona, with about 8,000 students, has a students-with-disabilities population just shy of 19 percent, or 1,484 students, compared with the state average of 15.2 percent.
The bureau has required the district to improve its evaluation process to ensure children are accurately diagnosed for special education.
"Since Altoona school district's figures are higher than the state average, the adviser required the district to review its pre-referral procedures and assessment practices to ensure accurate evaluation practices," state Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said.
Students 'properly placed'
While district spokeswoman Paula Foreman said there is always room for improvement, administrators believe their evaluation process is accurate.
"Without a doubt, all students are properly placed," Assistant Superintendent Mary Lou Ray said. "The first level of the screening process is the teacher and principal who try ways to change academic or behavioral problems before they are put into special education. If the strategies don't work, we do testing with a psychologist. Then a definitive determination is made by the psychologist after observance in the classroom."
For the 2010-11 school year, a majority of Altoona students enrolled in special education were students with a specific learning disability (42 percent), but 10 percent of the district's special education enrollment are students with chronic emotional disorders that disrupt their learning, 9 percent of students were enrolled for speech and language impairment, 8 percent are enrolled for autism and 15 percent are enrolled for mental retardation.
In 2010-11, special education enrollment at Altoona was higher: 1,523, according to state figures. The decrease, administrators believe, reflects the fluctuating nature of enrollment, not tighter disability screening, Foreman said.
Screening is the same at all districts, Detrich said.
Anti-dropout plan developed
Altoona administrators said they are unsure of reasons for the dropout rate, but an improvement plan is on record with the state, Eller said.
"The department encourages the district to address the dropout rate through transition planning, transition activities and community based activities. However, the school district does develop the plan, not the department," he said.
The district's special education parental advisory committee and special education department held an agency fair earlier this month to introduce families to services assisting students with disabilities transition from high school to the local workforce and college.
The Arc of Blair County has implemented an after-school reading program to diminish dropouts among special education students, said Executive Director Maria Brandt.
"When children have trouble reading, everything else crumbles," Brandt said. "A majority of the students who come to us are from Altoona."
In the 1970s, Breen was a houseparent at a community living arrangement operated by a chapter of the state's Mental Health and Mental Retardation agency. It was a home in Lewistown for children, who were once required to be institutionalized for life in state hospitals with large unsterile day rooms.
"There were dozens and dozens of kids all mixed together in institutions. It wasn't a wholesome place," Breen said.
Breen said not all institutionalized children had severe disabilities. He was surprised to see some children in institutions who were high-functioning.
Children statewide transitioned from institutions to small group homes in their families' neighborhoods, such as the one where Breen worked, and eventually moved back into their families' homes.
"At small group homes, we did things like eat dinner together. The goal was to get them back with their families," Breen said.
When special education law was passed in the 1970s, America's societal backdrop included an acceleration in divorce rates, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
'Dysfunction' at home
In general, Altoona administrators believe part of the district's special education dropout rate is for lack of family support.
"We encourage the student from many different levels - counselor, principal, teacher - to stick it out and earn their high school diploma," Ray said. "But unfortunately, those efforts don't always work.
"Many students do not have the family support component encouraging them to stay in school. In fact, for some students, it is quite the opposite, where they are encouraged by parents to sign out when they turn 17."
Dysfunctional home life can lead children with mental and emotional disorders to the juvenile system, Blair County Juvenile Probation Office Supervisor Jon Frank said.
"Anymore, there are a lot of children receiving behavior-based services who trickle into our system. If things aren't working out in home, then we check out foster homes, relatives, anything to keep children out of the juvenile facility," he said.
There is most likely no specific factor to blame for the district's dropout rate for special education students with disabilities, Detrich said.
"The problem is not all on the students. It's not all the district, and it's not all the parents," she said.
As Altoona continues efforts to improve its disabilities evaluation process for students, Detrich said the district's focus should be serving those with special needs.
"I don't care what the state average is," Detrich said. "If state numbers say we should have eight students with disabilities and we have 10 students with disabilities, then those 10 are going to get the services. That is how I look at it."
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.