Outreach to parents of disabled children begins with 9-stop listening tour
Bradenton Herald - 5/13/2017
May 13--"Teach her to zip up her jacket," Stacy Bartik said. "I could care less about long division."
Bartik, whose daughter is autistic and has epilepsy, was talking to an exceptional student education (ESE) specialist in the library of Mills Elementary School on Tuesday night.
The specialist dutifully wrote down Bartik's complaint on a legal pad filled with similar critiques from the three other parents gathered around a small table.
Around the room, ESE specialists and School District of Manatee County administrators listened as parents of children with disabilities voiced their frustrations with the district's special education department: poor communication, not enough services, money-steered decision-making.
The event, billed as a town hall, was replicated at Bayshore Elementary on Thursday and will take place at seven additional locations during the next three weeks.
"We need to communicate better," Wylene Herring-Cayasso, the district's director of ESE, said at the beginning of Tuesday night's session.
The nine-stop listening tour is part of the district's attempt to connect with parents of disabled students, a demographic that has become increasingly vocal in their frustrations with the district in recent months.
On Tuesday, Manatee County School District Superintendent Diana Greene and Herring-Cayasso circulated among the tables, listening to parents.
Many parents said they were tired of feeling out of the loop on their children's education. Many had children who are severely disabled, and many said they had bounced from school to school, looking for a place where their child could function. And many had stories of district dysfunction compounding their difficulties.
Michele Fisher's sick son has been on homebound education for the past two-and-a-half years. She said he got dropped from Florida Virtual, the state's remote learning portal. She didn't know he had been enrolled in eTech, a virtual education program run by the district. She said no one from the district called to let her know, and her son began accruing zeros on assignments he never completed in a program he did not know he was in. It wasn't until Fisher was checking her daughter's grades that she noticed her son was back in the system.
"Obviously, then you have a mistrust in the system," Fisher said. "My kid has zeros, how is he going to recoup? He does want to eventually go to college."
Bartik, the woman who wants her daughter to learn to zip up her jacket, said her daughter, who is non-verbal and has the cognitive capability of a 2-year-old, needs life skills. She fears a new emphasis on shifting disabled students into mainstream classrooms.
"Teaching her daily life skills is more advantageous for her," Bartik said. "To me that is not their primary focus. Academics are their primary focus."
While the district's main focus may be academics, it is following the state's lead, Greene said.
In 2014, state legislators voted to eliminate the special diploma as a graduation option. While many special education advocates cheered this decision, saying the special diploma was meaningless, the change also meant students with disabilities now must pass the same classes as their non-disabled peers.
Judy Bayer, a former principal at Abel Elementary School, said the state's decision to revoke the special diploma puts impossible expectations on school districts.
"We have a problem in this state that we don't have an alternative option (for disabled children)," Bayer said. "This is a state problem. It's a legislative problem. You cannot get a child with an IQ of 70 to earn a standard diploma."
Students with disabilities in Manatee County are far less likely to graduate high school than their peers across the state. According to the district's 2016 LEA Profile, an annual report compiled by the Florida Department of Education, 51 percent of students with disabilities graduated with a standard diploma in the county in 2016. Statewide, the percentage of disabled students graduating with a standard diploma -- necessary for any higher education and most jobs -- was 62 percent.
District officials say one of the reasons Manatee is lagging behind is because too many children with disabilities are in self-contained classrooms, where they are sheltered from a learning environment that may be beyond their ability, but they are also surrounded by other disabled children and do not learn healthy academic habits.
Deputy Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said most of the children in the district in self-contained classrooms are elementary-school aged, and that as they matriculate into middle school and high school, they are struggling to even move beyond the smaller specialized classes.
"The struggles they are having being immersed into an inclusion situation in secondary is very challenging and difficult, and it is very hard for those students to earn the credits they need to get their diploma," Saunders said.
That is why in February, Herring-Cayasso told board members the district would be establishing a multi-year plan to move more elementary school-aged students out of self-contained classes into mainstream education.
The process, known as "inclusion," is a nationwide, years-old approach toward educating children with disabilities. Rather than isolating children in self-contained classrooms, inclusion provides interaction to peers without disabilities and the challenge of a mainstream classroom.
One concern among advocates for students with disabilities is that the district already has pursued inclusion, and the only students not already in regular education classes are those who need the special environment.
According to the LEA profile, 89 percent of students with disabilities in Manatee already spend 80 percent or more of their time in regular education classes. That means the remaining 11 percent, or 800 or so students of the district's disabled students, are the priority for inclusion.
Saunders said parents shouldn't assume their child is going to be forced into inclusion.
"Some might think that we are going to do away with self-contained and everyone is going to be put into this inclusion model, but that's not going to happen," Saunders told school board members in April. "Obviously, we need to explain this better because we haven't explained it well enough."
Ann Siegel, a lawyer with Disability Rights Florida, said fights over inclusion happen every time a district seeks to shift disabled students into mainstream classes.
"Every time schools start talking about doing this, this is the reaction," Siegel said. "Parents often feel, 'If our child is in a self-contained classroom, they won't be bullied.'"
Making inclusion a priority can also get into legal gray areas. Federal law requires for a team of educators and specialists to decide on the services a disabled child receives on an individual basis. Sweeping mandates or new district priorities cannot shape a decision.
But as long as the district doesn't set quotas for its new goal, it should be on solid legal footing, Siegel said.
"They could bungle it by saying we are going to have X number of students move into inclusion, rather than looking at how many actually need inclusion," Siegel said.
And Siegel said the idea of inclusion is fundamental to the intent of IDEA, the federal law shaping how school districts treat students with disabilities.
"Students are supposed to be educated in the least-restrictive environment with non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate for each child," Siegel said.
Mark Kamleiter, an attorney in St. Petersburg with Special Education Law and Advocacy, said inclusion can be a guise for saving money.
"I swear, these school boards sit around and talk about how to use the law to save money," Kamleiter said.
Kamleiter said he is an advocate for inclusion, but done right, it is not cheap.
"I'm a big person for inclusion, but you have to support these kids," Kamleiter said. "Otherwise, they are out there drowning."
Kamleiter said support usually means more bodies in the classroom.
Fran Padgett, the former principal at Orange-Ridge Bullock, said inclusion can be seen as an investment where the initial cost decreases as students acclimate to the general education environment.
"When we went to inclusion, we had to get special dispensation to hire additional people," Fran said. "When you started putting (disabled children) in the classroom, you needed the personnel in there. It's more expensive."
A 53 percent increase
The number of disabled children in Manatee schools could be increasing dramatically in the next few years.
In April, Superintendent Greene told the Bradenton Herald the number of disabled children entering pre-Kindergarten had increased by 53 percent, going from 280 students in the program in 2015-16 to 427 in 2016-17.
Jennifer Passmore was not surprised when she saw the numbers. She is the director at Woodland Early Childhood Center, the county's largest private preschool.
"We have noticed an increase in the number of kids that come with particular issues and struggles," Passmore said. "I have had a very large increase in the number of parents I am counseling with and encouraging to go to an evaluation center and start that process and be evaluated."
Deputy Superintendent Saunders said an increase that sizable raises questions with the evaluation process.
"With our district growing, you would suspect that our numbers would increase, but that large of an increase makes you go back and investigate and say, 'Why?' " Saunders said.
She said her team met with the staff at the evaluation center to review the process and see why the county is seeing such an increase. She said they would be reviewing the data-entry process, the number of referrals from private-sector agencies, and the possibility that students who come from homes where English is not spoken may be misidentified as disabled.
"We put a lot of things on the table as possibilities, and now we are going to go back to the drawing board and investigate where we think those root causes are," Saunders said.
But she said if the numbers are correct, the district needs to begin preparing for a massive influx of students with disabilities.
Theories abound for explaining the potential increase. Some point to the heroin epidemic, others to parents not engaging with their children because they are looking at their phones.
Siegel, the lawyer with Disability Rights Florida, said more children being diagnosed as disabled early is also an indication of how far society has come in recognizing disabilities.
"Pediatricians are getting more savvy, and with the internet and YouTube and Facebook, people are learning more about what to look for at this age," she said.
'We can fix things there'
The consensus Tuesday night among parents in the Mills media center was that the communication was the district's biggest struggle.
In spite of those frustrations, statewide advocates say the district does a decent job when it comes to addressing concerned parents.
"Manatee is not the worst or the best. It has its strong points," Siegel said.
The district only had one formal complaint filed against it in 2015-16. Sarasota County had two. Pinellas County, with roughly two-and-a-half as many students, had 21.
"It's not that we don't have complaints, but we can take them to the district and sit down and work them out," Kamleiter said. "I usually tell my clients we can fix things there."
Ryan McKinnon: 941-745-7027, @JRMcKinnon
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