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School officials last year assigned 1,900 students to special-education programs.

For some, the assignment was avoidable.

For most, the assignment is permanent.

The special-education enrollment now stands at 6,400 students -- about 13 percent of the district's student population. The enrollment is larger than all but three of Erie County's 27 suburban school districts, and the $65 million budget is bigger than all but two.

Special education is a necessity for many youngsters who suffer from serious disabilities ranging from mental retardation to speech impediments to debilitating diseases. Others suffer "invisible" disabilities: Learning-disabled and emotionally disturbed students make up two-thirds of the district's special-education enrollment.

They are major reasons for a 23 percent increase in the district's special-education enrollment the past six years.

The district failed to provide many of these children with sufficient counseling or remedial services when they were still in regular classrooms. Among Buffalo special-education students 14 and older, 5 percent return to regular education. That compares with a national average of 7 percent and a state average of 8 percent.

A relatively high percentage are educated in isolation.

Nationally, only 24 percent of special- education students are taught in self-contained classes; in Buffalo, 54 percent are. In addition, a learning-disabled student in Buffalo is 2 1/2 times more likely than the national average to be taught in a self-contained class.

"A good portion of learning-disabled kids can spend some portion of their school day in regular academic classes, with or without support," Fuchs said.

Max Donatelli Jr. is a parent representative on the district committee that determines whether students are placed in special education. He notes that the district has established programs at 17 schools where special-education students are placed in selected regular classrooms.

This is called inclusion, and Donatelli said the district is moving too slowly.

"They have to move beyond pilot programs," he said.

Donatelli's son, who has Down's syndrome, attends a kindergarten class at School 90 under a pilot program.

"He likes school; he looks forward to going," Donatelli said. "He's able to interact with non-disabled kids and benefits because he's getting normal expectations from teachers and other children. That has normalized his educational experience."

Graduation rates trail the national average.

Thirty-eight percent of special-education students earned a high school diploma by the time they left school. That's two to four times better than at the other four large urban school districts in New York but below the national average of 50 percent.

A high percentage drops out.

Special-education students in Buffalo are more likely to drop out of school than their counterparts elsewhere. One out of every three special-education students here drops out; the national average is 22 percent.

This is perhaps the critical failing of the special-education efforts in Buffalo, said Bruce Goldstein, an attorney who represents Buffalo special-education students.

"Where the district really falls short is not having enough variety and meaningful vocational and transitional services," he said.

The district's difficulties with special education start before children enter.

The state requires school districts to evaluate pupils referred for placement in special-education programs within 30 days. But only 44 percent of such evaluations were done on time last year.

The district also has failed to meet two other state deadlines to evaluate students already in the program. Only 46 percent of students referred for re-evaluation were done within the required 30 days last year.

The deadline for completing routine evaluations of pupils every third year was met only 23 percent of the time.

Buffalo school officials said they have fallen behind because their evaluation staff has been cut by 12 percent the past four years despite a 33 percent surge in evaluations.

The worst of the evaluation department's problems may be behind it. Last month, it began hiring 20 additional professionals to clear up the backlog. But officials said it will take at least a year to catch up.

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