It's not easy for Faith Murray to find her way around. The 9-year-old Oakland girl, whose warm personality has earned her the reputation of class charmer, is blind and mentally disabled. Cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects a person's movement, also makes it harder for her to walk.
But after years at Montclair Elementary School, a popular school in the Oakland hills, Faith had become so familiar with the twists and turns of the surrounding neighborhood that she learned to read a braille map. Soon, she was leading her visually impaired classmates to the grocery store, the laundry and other places in the Montclair
shopping district — exactly the sort of independence the special education program for blind students with severe developmental disabilities was designed to instill.
When school starts up again Monday, however, Faith and her classmates won't be seen swinging their canes along Mountain Boulevard, or through Montclair's hallways. Overcrowding at Montclair prompted Oakland Unified School District staff to move the one-classroom kindergarten through fifth-grade program to Glenview Elementary School, two miles away.
Until Faith learns the new terrain, she will be following, not leading.
Parents and special education advocates were alarmed by the school district's decision to relocate the well-established program — an announcement that wasn't made until June, on the last week of school. The move uprooted not only the seven visually impaired children at Montclair, but students in a special education class at Glenview were shuffled to a third school, Bella Vista Elementary, to make room for them.
While Glenview's principal has been very welcoming, parents say, the school's hilly environment is a harsh place for the blind and the wheelchair-bound to develop a sense of self-sufficiency. A flight of stairs separates the classrooms from the lower play yard — where Glenview's new play structure is located — making it difficult for the children to interact with the rest of the students. And, during the summer session, the routes to the nearby public library and the neighborhood's shopping area proved impossible for the whole class to navigate.
One morning, when his small class took a field trip to the public library, an important part of the special education program, 6-year-old Jacob Wenster had to stay behind with an aide. The hill on the way back to Glenview is so long and steep that none of the teacher's aides were able to muscle his wheelchair over it.
Jacob, who has severe developmental delays and eats through a feeding tube, enters the second grade this fall. He has attended a different Oakland public school each year since preschool.
Jacob's mother, Marie Wenster, said the nonchalant way in which parents were informed of the move confirmed her suspicions: that children with special needs are "second-class citizens" in the eyes of the school administration.
"It's like we're an afterthought, really," Wenster said.
Cheryl Theis, an education advocate for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, a civil rights law and policy center in Berkeley, said school districts have the right to relocate special education programs, as long as children continue to receive the same services and support.
But for a variety of reasons, Theis said, "Children in special education have more precarious placements, just in general." She added, "The kids who need the most stability often have the least."
A matter of space
School district officials say the move will actually benefit the students who were displaced, and the two newcomers who will join the program this fall.
Since Glenview offers a preschool program for the blind, the change will eventually allow blind and developmentally delayed children to remain in the same setting for one additional year, from preschool through fifth grade, district spokesman Troy Flint said. Blind children without mental disabilities take part in a different program and attend mainstream classes.
Flint also said the preschool and elementary school teachers would be able to work together more easily.
But Flint acknowledged that the overcrowding at Montclair — a problem shared by a number of the city's more affluent public schools — was a factor in the decision, and one that prompted district officials to move the class immediately.
"Space was a consideration," Flint said.
Without the special education class in Room 14, Montclair has an extra classroom in which to accommodate all of the neighborhood children who wish to attend the school this fall, as well as the younger siblings of existing students.
The displaced special education students, by contrast, come from across the city.
Wenster and some of the other special needs parents dismiss the school district's "greater continuity" rationale as disingenuous.
"It's a numbers game," Wenster said. "We're little nomads, right? It's like, 'Here's a spare building you can have until we need it.'"
The children's teacher, Taylor Moseley, said he, too, was taken aback by the way in which the news was delivered to his families.
"I can't imagine a general education class where parents get a letter on the last week of school saying: 'P.S. When you come back in September, you'll be somewhere else,'" Moseley said. "To me, it's a civil rights issue. I feel that they weren't being treated equally."
Finding their way
One foggy morning in July, during the outing to the public library, Faith held a cane in one hand and a teacher's arm in the other. With each tentative step, she and her classmates moved closer to their destination — down a steep hill, through a park and up a busy street from their new school.
"All right, Faith, you need to use the railing," one teacher reminded the 9-year-old as she slowly made her way down a set of stairs.
Every driveway, every ditch poses a unique challenge for blind and mentally disabled children who have to rely on their hearing and sense of touch to stay out of harm's way. Moseley said his pupils are consumed with the new sounds and smells and become easily distracted and disoriented.
"Carmen, Carmen, Carmen, where are you going?" Moseley called out, with a smile in his voice, as 9-year-old Carmen Chung wandered off in the opposite direction of the rest of the group.
Moseley said district staff held a meeting with him over the summer to find out what the children need at Glenview. They agreed to sand and repaint the hand rails outside the classroom, change the door knobs, add a handlebar in the bathroom and make other modifications to their new home.
"They are, on some level, trying to make it OK," Moseley said.
Still, Moseley said, the relocation will undoubtedly be a setback.
"Now, in addition to teaching them personal responsibility, I'm going to be spending a lot of time with them learning the classroom," Moseley said. "Just getting from one end of the classroom to the other, for my lower-functioning kids, will take a couple of months."
Rueben Burleson, a veteran teacher assigned to the visually impaired class from 2003 to 2007, said the district administration tried to move the program out of Montclair in 2006. They backed off quickly, he said, after receiving a forceful response from the program's staff.
"We said, in very frank language, that it's taken a number of years to establish the program," Burleson recalled. "It's not the sort of program you can just move around at will."
After Burleson left Oakland for a position in the South Bay — and was replaced by Moseley, a first-year teacher — district officials did just that.
Burleson said the move would strip the visually impaired kids of the strong sense of community that they enjoyed at Montclair. Like Wenster, he believes that their educational and social needs were brushed aside.
"What it literally comes down to is Montclair is a successful school, and everyone wants to get their kids in there," Burleson said.
But Burleson said he believed the decision to remove the special education program from Montclair will affect those who remain at the school, as well.
"You are showing them, by example, that somehow (the special education students) are lesser citizens, that they are lesser people," he said. "That's a pretty devastating message."