One week after the school department’s announcement of changes in the special ed program at Meadowbrook Farms raised parent alarms, administrators said Monday children will not be adversely affected by the changes.
“I have faith that the decisions are made in the best interests of kids,” said Supt. Victor Mercurio. “Every spring when we make any changes, there are always questions.”
At issue is the transfer next school year of special ed teacher Lore Gray and one other special ed teacher from Meadowbrook to Cole Middle School, and the transfer of three special ed students from Meadowbrook to Frenchtown. Parents found out via letter from the district or from the school administration early last week and the response was immediate.
Gray came to Meadowbrook 14 years ago to establish a program for children with autism. It was initially called the Autism Program and later changed to the Social Communication Disorder Program. But two superintendents and four special education directors later, neither Mercurio or Brad Wilson (the current special ed director) said they were aware there was any such program at Meadowbrook.
In the wake of the announcement, however, emails swirled and parents took to social media to vent their anger and frustration, including this comment from one parent on the EG Parents for Excellence Facebook page:
“According to the mission statement East Greenwich Public Schools is suppose to be ‘committed to creating an environment that ensures quality teaching . . . enabling all learners to pursue academic excellence.’ The present initiative in no way fulfills this mission. Please let the school committee and the school leaders know that these changes are unacceptable.”
Parents who’s children are being taught by Gray see her departure as the dismantling of a successful autism program and worry whether or not there will be adequate staffing at the school next year. Wilson says there will be adequate staffing.
“No IEP is being changed,” he said. Gray’s students will be served by the two remaining special education teachers at Meadowbrook.
He said there would no longer be a self-contained classroom at Meadowbrook. (Students in a self-contained classroom spend most of their time with that class as opposed to other students with special needs who are in a regular ed classroom but receive extra help and/or are pulled out for supporting services. IEPs are “individualized education plans” used as a blueprint for a special education student’s instruction.)
Frenchtown, which serves the same kindergarten-through-second-grade age group as Meadowbrook, will have a self-contained classroom which will accommodate students from Meadowbrook needing that environment come September.
Wilson said he understood the news was upsetting to parents. He said the reason the news was not delivered in a more typical team-meeting setting was because the decision to make these changes was only determined a couple of weeks ago and arranging multiple team meetings in the final weeks of school would have been difficult. Team meetings usually involve the parents, the special education teacher, a regular education teacher, an administrator, and any specialists (for instance, speech, occupational, and physical therapists) who work with the student.
Wilson said he preferred to get the news out there as quickly as possible.
He said the reason for the changes was because of the domino effect that took place when it was decided during recent IEP meetings to move special ed students from Meadowbrook to Hanaford, and other special ed students from Hanaford were transitioned to Cole for September, bringing the number of students at Cole to unacceptable levels for one teacher in one classroom.
Wilson said with those changes the number of special ed students at Meadowbrook had dropped to a level where the comparison with the number of students at Cole made the changes at Meadowbrook necessary.
“It may not be what people have been used to,” he said, “but we can reasonably accommodate those kids in other settings.”
Wilson said last year staff had to be moved from the high school and Frenchtown to Hanaford and Eldredge after the third graders were moved up to those two schools.
“Meadowbrook was able to hold on to special services staff through last year’s grade shift,” he said.
Wilson said he understands his decisions have not been popular.
“These decisions are not easy,” he said. “There’s wear and tear on families, wear and tear on the teachers involved, and on me.”
To be clear, “no IEP is being changed” is not the issue-the issue is that the IEPs cannot be fulfilled with these proposed changes. It is not just the loss of staff, it is the loss of staff that have specialized training with regards to Autism. These parents are not being overly emotional and this is not just “upsetting”, we have a legal right to ask the district what specialized training the remaining teachers have (disability specific) and we have done so, but gotten no answer. No transparency. In fact, one special educator who isn’t being moved (and is lower on seniority) from Meadowbrook because she has training in the new computer information system. I guess keeping special educators with specialized training in the computer system IS important, but making sure that they have the skill set to serve disabled students is not.
As a group, we are reasonable and knowledgeable people (doctors, lawyers, and myself-a special education expert for the state). We are not saying staff shouldn’t be moved, we are saying the selection of/planning for has been short-sighted and will hurt children.
Take, for example, the plan to have all self-contained (most needy children) in only Frenchtown Elementary-since those same children WILL qualify for special needs preschool upon transition from EI and the special needs preschool is only at Meadowbrook, now we will have kids that will go from Meadowbrook to Frenchtown and then (if Full Day K happens) possibly back to Meadowbrook. These are kids with Downs Syndrome, Autism-all disabilities that consistency and continuity are key and gains will be lost. Transitions set ALL kids back, but these kids are our most vulnerable. I promise you most parents have documented recommendations from experts (neurologists, developmental pediatricians, psychiatrists, etc) that say that moving these students will do them harm. To avoid this, we will be forced to go to out of district placements and other costly measures.
The bigger issue here are the lack of transparency and communication. Again, I have been to the SELAC (SpEd Parent Advisory Com) all year (they have been going on since the fall, not just this spring) and our time is filled with frivolous updates while things of this nature never come up. I have asked for the data to be shared transparently and have yet to see it. In addition, principals, teachers, and most parents knew of none of this until it was announced as happening.
Another major issue is that suddenly EG, a district that prides itself on excellence, is throwing around terms like “free and appropriate” and “reasonably accommodate” and I think we, as a community need to do some soul searching. Is it okay to provide/demand for excellence, above and beyond greatness, for typical children and then provide the bare minimum required by law for others? I guess I would use the term “discrimination” and would wonder what an audit of highly qualified comparing gen ed to special ed would yield because that is what we are saying here- our children need qualified teachers too.
Those who believe special education has “Cadillac Services” sadly need to be educated on special education research, current data from the schools evaluating effectiveness/ineffectiveness of programming (you have all of this with STAR), and how cutting costs early on only costs you (and kids and families) more in the end. For these kids, the difference can be one of an independent life contributing to society or a life of government reliance and disability. What I am fighting for here is simply “appropriate” for these kids-it is no “Cadillac”. Equal doesn’t mean the same.
What we need is long term, visionary leadership. We need out of the box thinking-not solve the problem using bureaucratic “smoke and mirrors”. Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the country. This group will only grow and it isn’t just poor East Greenwich, it is the entire state, the entire country. If your family isn’t affected, sadly-within a generation or two…it will be. Then you will understand that we have an ethical obligation and that while different, these children/people contribute a lot to our world and our community. We need to come together and plan proactively to (as efficiently as possible) provide these children with a quality education…this is not how to do it.
After a further review and analysis of the data and work of the faculty and support staff at Meadowbrook Farms, we have made the decision to keep the existing resource staff and paraprofessionals in place for the upcoming academic year. With the notable exception of the current self-contained classroom teacher to Eldredge Elementary School to support growing student needs there, there will be no further changes in resource teacher and/or paraprofessional staffing at Meadowbrook Farms. We deeply appreciate the thoughtful feedback given to us through a variety of vehicles to conduct further analysis and to inform this decision. We wish the faculty, staff, and community a most pleasant summer and best wishes for a successful 2014-2015 school year.
Victor D. Mercurio, Ed.D.