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Film delivers unbiased look at schooling disabled

Sunday, January 19, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer

The story of Peter Gwazdauskas' schooling continues in this documentary sequel to "Educating Peter," an Oscar-award winning short film that chronicled Peter's third-grade year in 1991.


"Graduating Peter"

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday on HBO

Peter was the first severely disabled child in his school to enter a regular classroom after the passage of a federal law that allowed him to do so.

Twice as long as the original film and covering six grade levels, "Graduating Peter" makes it achingly clear that his education isn't finished and neither is the controversy that still surrounds Public Law 94142.

The 1975 legislation gave parents the right to put their disabled children into the "least restrictive environment" in public schools. But so-called "mainstreaming" is an option, not a mandate; and the parents themselves don't agree if mainstreaming is the best way to educate severely mentally retarded kids like Peter.

Born with Down Syndrome, Peter in fact spent his first few years of school in special education classes. But his determined mother makes a convincing argument often echoed by some parents of other similarly disabled children. She wants her son to learn the skills needed to live on his own as an adult.

"They can't be taught in a group of people with disabilities," she said. "We don't live in a community where we are in a majority of people with disabilities. We have to interact with, for lack of a better word, regular people."

Director and producer Gerardine Wurzburg's candid look at Peter's third-grade experience in a Blacksburg, Va., public school won her not only an Academy Award but wide acclaim from disabilities activists who saw "Educating Peter" as mission support.

Parents of "regular" children in Peter's third-grade class could disagree, however, after seeing how Peter's disruptive behavior made learning sometimes impossible for other students and taxed his caring but under-prepared teacher.

Peter's small-town school is in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, but has the advantage of being in a university town (Virginia Tech) with the accompanying resources of education scholars, researchers and eager college students in need of training and internships.

By the time Wurzburg returns to begin documenting Peter's schooling from sixth to 12th grade, much has changed. No longer is a single overwhelmed teacher responsible for Peter. He has an array of aides, social workers, psychologists and special education staffers.

When he reaches high school, Peter is enrolled in few mainstream courses. His school offers, instead, classes such as "life and job skills" and "functional academics" where he can learn to count money, ride buses, shake hands, make eye contact, punch a time card.

And Peter's mother, once confident that through public education her son would surely learn to live on his own, meets some hard truths.

Peter still needs 24-hour supervision. He's on medication for attention deficit disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and thyroid disease. He can't be counted on to obey some basic rules of behavior.

Documented, too, is the tough socialization for a kid who's so physically and mentally different. While his third-grade classmates were heartbreakingly kind and firm, emulating their teacher and her methods of dealing with Peter's outbursts and disabilities, middle-schoolers can be cruel.

But older high-schoolers typically reclaim the kindheartedness they possessed as young children and the more mature teens give up their aversion to being seen with someone "different." Blacksburg High School cheerleaders greet Peter in the hallway, a club started by a perceptive special education teacher creates activities that bring the school's regular and disabled students together, and the soccer team cheerfully accepts Peter as team manager.

At once compassionate and impartial, skilled cameraman Gary Griffin reveals the world seen through Peter's thick-lensed glasses.

The high school graduation ceremony is filmed as it might have looked to Peter and the community who nurtures him. After a gentle push from the classmate behind him, Peter uncertainly makes the long trek across the stage, teachers and staff members stationed along the way to remind him which way to go. His mother waits on the other side of the stage, at the bottom of the stairs, ready to take a snapshot.

Public Law 94142 entitles Peter to go to school through his 21st birthday. By the end of the film, Peter's almost there, the product of nearly a dozen years of reforms in education for disabled kids. He's now a young man who can't tie his shoes and loses his way home from the bus stop, but one who may have taught the rest of his community a few lessons along the way.

Jane Elizabeth can be reached at jelizabeth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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