Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) reached a settlement agreement with the Maryland Disability Law Center (MDLC) on Monday after 26 years of litigation. Filed in 1984, MDLC claimed city schools were failing to meet the needs of and provide adequate services to special education students, who comprise 15 percent of the system’s population. The agreement absolves the lawsuit as of July 1, 2010, but mandates that certain stipulations be met over the next two years.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” said BCPS CEO Andrés Alonso at a press conference held March 8, “but we believe that we have made tremendous progress in terms of compliance elements that were a part of the objectives that the court set for us years ago. The special education kids have been progressing at a faster rate than general education kids.”

Leslie Margolis, MDLC’s senior attorney, felt that continuing with the lawsuit would be a detriment to all parties involved, especially the students. However, she feels confident that BCPS is making key academic gains for special education students.

“We know it is difficult to bring systemic reform down to the individual student level,” Margolis said. “It is MDLC’s phone that rings with families seeking assistance when there is a problem with an individual child’s school program. However, we know that Dr. Alonso and his staff are working hard to make systemic reform result and changes with every student in BCPS.”

The court ruled that Baltimore City schools failed to evaluate and meet special education students’ needs, such as adequate educational opportunities and sufficient transportation. Alonso said these issues will be addressed over the next two years.

Other concerns include discipline and provisions for supplementary aids and services.

After the verdict, the U.S. District Court monitored the city schools, which will also be disbanded in July. Instead of reporting to Special Master Amy Totenberg, Baltimore City will join all other school districts in the state by reporting directly to the Maryland State Department of Education.

“This is an enormous accomplishment for Baltimore City Public Schools and a testament to Baltimore City’s commitment to providing a quality education to all of its students,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at the conference.

Restructuring within the Office of Special Education has already taken place, but more will be done over the course of the next two years, said BCPS Executive Director of Special Education Kim Lewis said. She noted that all principals are trained to work with special education students, more professional development opportunities are available for teachers, more co-teaching is seen throughout schools and behavior programs are being enhanced.

“All those things tend to come together to make a difference,” Lewis said. “There will be some changes but we’re just starting to hash that out now. We’ll continue to progress in every aspect. It’s all about providing students with disabilities with the support they need to achieve.”