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Peter’s Take: APS Should Delay Termination of Special Ed Communication Class

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On May 5, 2021, APS abruptly cancelled its Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Class. APS has failed the children in the Communication Class by not arranging an adequate alternative.

What the AAC Communication Class offered

APS’s AAC Communication Class developed over many years to address the severe challenges that certain students have learning to communicate. A variety of conditions can result in such severe difficulties speaking or writing that these conditions cannot be addressed without the special adaptive supports that the Communication Class provides (pp. 21-23). For Pre-K-2 students, APS had assembled a trained teaching staff at Fleet Elementary to meet countywide Communication Class needs.

There are over 150 APS kids who are not able to rely on speech to be understood. Still, most of us probably have never met someone who speaks using AAC. The AAC technology and multi-modality tools help students with various disabilities to hone language and get their wants, thoughts, and needs across to everyone.

AAC device acquisition and mastery is challenging. Only 72 of those 150 APS students are using high tech devices that are capable of interfacing with computers, phones, calculators etc. Teachers and parents have a big learning curve, so early learners have double, sometimes triple, that learning curve.

The COVID-19 pandemic created multiple barriers for these vulnerable learners to access their speech therapists and hone their communication skills, literacy skills, and language system — if they were fortunate enough to have been evaluated by APS prior to the pandemic.

Why APS’s alternative AAC proposal is inadequate

Without prior explanation of the reasons or the timing, APS suddenly declared publicly on May 5 that all these AAC students’ needs will be met at their separate individual neighborhood elementary schools beginning with the Fall 2021 semester. There are both instructional and procedural reasons why APS’s decision was very wrong and needs to be changed.

Instructional problems

APS can’t push these children into a General Education classroom until these students have learned how to communicate. The Fleet Communication Class was one of several special education countywide programs providing children with specially-designed instruction with staff that have knowledge and skills specific to their individual disabilities,” using one speech-language pathologist (SLP) supporting 2-12 children; one special education teacher for six students, and two aides to help that teacher. AAC students at Fleet greatly benefited from mutual AAC student peer reinforcement.

At APS neighborhood elementary schools, every other SLP currently has a 55-student caseload, and 28 students per class are expected in 2021-2022. APS doesn’t seem to know or care how it will replace these AAC services countywide.

APS cannot possibly provide anything close to the resources required by a dispersal model by this Fall. In three years, such a model conceivably might work, but APS’s current plan to have only two part-time AAC coaches for the entire County means that those two teachers will be spread way too thin to replace the much more highly individualized Communication Class services.

Procedural problems

The APS Director of Special Education publicly announced the termination of the Communication Class on May 5 to a working group. That day’s agenda blandly referred to: “Update on Communication Program.” The Director pulled the plug on AAC parents, while admitting, “we’re still working on building capacity at each school.”

As AAC parent Jenn Seiff explains:

I have dedicated the last 2+ years to helping sculpt and create a better school system for our AAC users. However, APS made the decision to terminate the Communication Class behind closed doors without any parent involvement.

Conclusion

Lauren Mann, parent of an AAC user, said “it is extremely discouraging that these students will lose their supportive classroom where they should have been welcomed back.”

APS should have:

  • provided AAC users, their parents, and teachers with many months’ notice of its proposal,
  • offered its reasons why it thought such a change was necessary, and
  • invited AAC parents to weigh in with their ideas and suggestions.

Now, APS should keep the Communication Class in a single building (Fleet or another) until such time as APS credibly can demonstrate to AAC parents that it has a sufficiently well-trained staff available to support a dispersal model.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC, a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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