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Darien school officials, parents meet to discuss special ed concerns

Published 11:41 am, Saturday, December 1, 2012
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The Therapeutic Learning Center isn't going anywhere, according to Superintendent Stephen Falcone.

Located at Ox Ridge Elementary School, the TLC, as it's referred to by parents and faculty, houses the district's special needs students and offers the necessary resources all under one roof. Rather than sending students to their home schools of Royle, Hindley, Tokeneke or Holmes, they report to the TLC where they receive the individualized help outlined in their education plan, which is determined by faculty and parents.

On Oct. 18, Falcone, Special Education Director Deidre Osypuk, Ox Ridge Principal Luke Forshaw and several others conducted a meeting to explain a new vision for the special education program.

It didn't go over very well.

Parents thought the TLC was going to be disbanded and students were going to be placed right back in their home schools without any preparation because of a mixture of poor communication and rumors, according to parents.

Kit Savage, a parent of a special needs student and founder SPEDucated Parents in Darien, which educates parents on how to advocate for their children, had numerous concerns after the meeting. She said parents were told the TLC would be dismantled and that there was no logical reason or time frame given to them.

"Transitioning is hard for any child, but it's always harder for a child with special needs," Savage said. She said it's important for them to keep a routine, which, if disrupted could be damaging to a child's progress, depending on his or her disability and level of need.

After misconceptions by parents, according to the administration, and lack of a clear explanation by the administration, according to parents, the administration had an explanatory meeting about the special education program on Nov. 14.

"The goal is to provide students with their education as close to the home school as possible," Falcone said in a follow-up interview.

Between the two meetings, parents with children in TLC were "concerned and upset," according to Savage, because the first meeting "wasn't a dialogue."

The decisions to dismantle the TLC and send the children back to their home schools "were being presented as done," Savage said. "And even if they are, which is certainly within the realm of the district to do, you need to substantiate it with research and a presentation. Can you imagine if you had a severely disabled child, how unsettling that would be?"

She quickly added that almost all follow-up questions received by the administration were given "essentially no response."

Parents were left with questions after the first meeting, including the cost, a possible time frame and whether it would disrupt their child's learning. Parents also wondered what proof the administration had that the plan would better benefit the children and whether or not the proper supports would be in place. Most of those concerns were addressed on Nov. 14.

"I'll start by saying my purpose tonight is not to set the record straight once and for all," Falcone said at the second meeting, "because that seems to suggest that the conversation ends, and that's not what we want. We want to be open, we have a message and we want to articulate that message clearly, we want people to be involved in that conversation. Bottom line is, we're seriously committed to answering the questions that you have."

Falcone said the administration has a vision for what's best for the special education students of Darien and that vision includes students receiving instruction closest to their classrooms in their "home" schools to the maximum extent that's appropriate.

"Some students can be fully included pretty easily in a general education classroom," Falcone said. "Other students not so much."

Falcone said he and his colleagues are not advocates of a philosophy of full inclusion. Full inclusion is a philosophy based on the notion that all students regardless of the degree of disability should be educated entirely in the same general education classroom as their same-age peers.

"To say full inclusion is it takes judgment out of our hands, and that's not something that I would want to do," Falcone said. "I want kids to be able to go to a classroom, stand in a bus line, go to recess and be able to be independent in those areas. We have to allow kids to become increasingly independent and I don't care if that's in elementary, middle or high school. For all of us as parents it's letting the rope out, and those are decisions I know we make every day. Where do I push them and where do I support them? And in what ways do I support them?"

Falcone said he wanted the administration and the parents to consider the following questions:

How can our child be educated in a general education classroom with modifications and supports and services?

Can the child be educated in the general education classroom with modifications, accommodations, supports and services? If so, what's needed?

If not, and the child cannot be educated in the general education classroom, why not?

Are the services being recommended going to promote increased levels of independents?

"I want administrators and planning and placement teams asking those questions. I want teachers asking those questions. I want to ask you those questions," Falcone told the parents. "These are not easy questions, they're complicated and they're individualized."

Ultimately, the administration hopes that the parents believe asking those tough questions will lead to what's in the best interest of the child, according to Falcone.

Subsequently, the floor was opened for concerns from parents.

One parent said families were concerned about "general communication."

"We understood things were changing, but we didn't know why," the parent said. "We're reasonable people, but we felt that there was a big lack of communication."

The parent said there were rumors that the administration was cost-cutting to save money, and wanted to know where the budget was this year compared to last.

Falcone said the budget was up and that personnel and operating expenses are the main costs.

"In the past probably four or five years, we were increasing the special education budget in terms of personnel and operating by double digits," Falcone said. "Last year, we probably increased by only about 4 percent. This year, we put more money in the budget into special education, and now we're going to have to see. I'm going to guess there's going to be another increase, and I'm hoping that it will be a modest amount."

Another parent asked about accessibility of information, and if the parents have questions, who do they ask?

"I think we have to sit and determine what's reasonable in terms of that communication and what are the questions being posed," Falcone said. "If there is an expectation of a daily report on what my kid did, then that's not something I would consider standard operating procedure."

Falcone said classroom issues should be brought up with a teacher or a case worker, building issues should go to Forshaw or Assistant Principal Kristin Goldstein, programmatic issues to Forshaw, Goldstein and Special Education Director Deidre Osypuk, and district-wide issues to Falcone himself.

Everyone has a different expectation for communication, according to Falcone, and he believes that those expectations should be appropriate.

"I will say we want to avoid the redundancy because if we're rehashing the same thing to the different people that means teachers aren't working with students," Falcone said.

One parent wanted to know if their child needed a special gym or a speech pathologist would all of those things be in place at the home school? And will the TLC still exist for those children needing more support who may not be able to be included in the general education classroom?

Falcone said the TLC would have to exist.

Osypuk was quick to agree.

"If those supports cannot be made available at their home school, then kids have to stay where their supports are," she said. Students will receive the same support they receive at the TLC at their home school, according to Osypuk.

"It's going to be the individualized education plan in a different building," Osypuk said.

Parents asked several questions regarding cost, and in a follow-up interview, Osypuk said she believes the costs for educating students closer to their home schools "will be negligible."

Savage said after the second meeting that she felt the administration clarified some things, but feels that "the level of accountability isn't quite there yet."

Savage said to make any changes without any projection in a time of such financial crisis doesn't make sense. "I'm a taxpayer, and that concerns me, and I have a special education kid," she said.

Overall, the second meeting was what parents needed to hear, according to Savage, and they felt much more relieved.

"For me, it really boils down to the nitty gritty: materials, finances and time frame," Savage said. "I think it's reasonable to ask what the projection of saving is. I think like everything else if this ends up costing the district more, then we haven't achieved anything."

In a follow-up interview, Osypuk said, "Each receiving school has to be looked at to ensure that it has the proper staffing, the proper materials, the proper supports in place for that child to be successful. Otherwise, we wouldn't move a child if we didn't have those supports in place."

Falcone and Osypuk both made it clear in follow-up interviews that there is no time frame because the decisions regarding whether or not students can return to their home schools will be made at a PPT meeting.

"To the degree that we have these PPT meetings and the PPT meetings make a determination that the child can be in a home school or a home classroom, and, if we have the supports, then that's a decision that's going to be made by the team and that includes school reps, parent reps in making those determinations," Falcone said.

Recently, the administration has added more entries to a Frequently Asked Questions list in hopes of diminishing any confusion parents might have. The FAQ can be found at www.darienps.org under the special education tab.

As for future meetings regarding the changes, Falcone said there will be sessions periodically throughout the year.

"I know that Dr. Osypuk is still presenting to the PTOs and we'll probably update some more to the FAQ," Falcone said, adding that when the administration presents the budget it offers an opportunity to look at school programming, which includes everything from art and physical education to music, the library and special education.

"In conjunction with the budget review. there's kind of a program overview where we look at all of our different disciplines," Falcone said.

mdavis@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4407; twitter.com/megdariennews