A parent of an autistic student at Carlin Springs Elementary worries that school officials are pushing her son into general education classes too quickly, and she’s taking the school system to court in response.
Jemie Sanchez says that school officials assured her last year that her son, Christopher, would continue to primarily learn in small classes when he moved up to kindergarten this fall, with attention from a special education teacher. But she says she subsequently discovered her son has been spending his time in larger, general education classrooms instead, and can’t understand why educators would make such a change.
Sanchez is pursuing legal action against Arlington Public Schools to try and force Carlin Springs leaders to adhere to what she felt they’d originally promised for her son, particularly because she’s concerned that the school has repeated this pattern with other students in special education classes.
“When I used to send him to pre-school, I felt comfortable, and now I don’t,” Sanchez told ARLnow. “The worst part is he cant tell me either, because he’s largely nonverbal. He used to be happy to go to school. He’d wake up early on weekends and say he wants to go to school, and he’s not doing that anymore.”
APS spokesman Frank Bellavia says the school system can’t comment “on an individual student’s record,” so it’s impossible for the school system to respond directly to Sanchez’s claims. But he did seek to stress that APS staffers work diligently to develop Individualized Education Programs (commonly known as IEPs) for special needs students in conjunction with parents, in order to allay any potential concerns.
“In general, school staff and families are able to have informal discussions and/or formal IEP meetings to consider a child’s strengths and weaknesses, services, accommodations and placement,” Bellavia said. “Additional specialists from the Central Office are available for consultation and participation. Families and school staff may also access support from our Parent Resource Center.”
Sanchez felt she had worked out an acceptable IEP with the Carlin Springs administration and special education teachers back in March.
She stressed to educators that she felt her son would be best suited for a small classroom with only seven to eight students in total, and two teachers working with them. And she says Carlin Springs staff agreed with her on that point.
Yet when Sanchez arrived for a back-to-school event earlier this fall, she learned that Christopher was spending time in a larger, general education class, working with a special education assistant at the time.
“He has troubles with transitions already, so I just couldn’t imagine him being in a bigger classroom with different teachers,” Sanchez said.
She quickly raised the issue with educators, who then offered to arrange another meeting with her to revise Christopher’s IEP. But she can’t understand why they changed the arrangement they struck back in March without consulting her first.
“They’re not implementing the first one, so how can we decide on something else after such a short period of time?” Sanchez said.
Sanchez decided to hire a lawyer instead, and challenge the school’s actions in court. Nicholas Ostrem signed on as her attorney, and he says he helped her file an administrative complaint, in order to force the school to comply with the original IEP educators sketched out for Christopher.
He says the school system has so far insisted that it is indeed complying with that document, but he worries that Sanchez’s son shouldn’t be working solely with an assistant teacher when he’s in the larger group setting.
“Many [assistants] don’t have specific special education training, and we don’t think that complies with the IEP,” said Ostrem, whose firm focuses on special education cases. “Even giving them the benefit of the doubt, we don’t think they’re doing this in good faith. It can’t just be a warm body, you have to try to educate these kids.”
Ostrem said the case was set to go before a hearing officer today (Thursday), though it could take a while yet before everything the courts can sort all this out. He even wonders why APS has fought back on this in the first place, arguing that it will “cost taxpayers a ton of money” to litigate the case.
For her part, Sanchez says the whole ordeal has been “very emotional,” particularly after she just had another child a few weeks ago. Now, she wonders what the future might hold for her family.
“I’ve lived in Arlington my whole life, I grew up going to APS,” Sanchez said. “I wanted that for him too, but then it’s coming to this. It’s made me think maybe I made a mistake in wanting to keep him in Arlington.”
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Arlington Public Schools will receive a transfer from the county of $432.2 million, with the rest of the money coming from federal, state and other sources.
Responding to parent criticism, the School Board reversed many of the cuts proposed by Superintendent Patrick Murphy. While the school system is growing thanks to increased school enrollment, Murphy sought to offset some of the expense of that growth through cuts totaling $7.3 million and the equivalent of about 75 full-time positions.
The School Board moved more than $5.6 million in reserves for 2016 into expenditures for this coming year, adding the equivalent of 70 full-time positions to Murphy’s proposed budget. Among the proposed cuts nixed by the Board:
- Merging the Langston High School continuation program with Arlington Mill High School, located at the Arlington Career Center ($1.6 million and 19 positions)
- Eliminating library assistants at elementary schools ($1.1 million in the budget and 21 positions)
- Reduction of professional development funding from the Twice Exceptional program, for gifted special education students ($75,000 and a part-time position)
- Cutting seven of the 12 assistants from APS’ secondary school autism program (see below)
School Board Chair Abby Raphael was the only School Board member to vote against reinstating the autism assistants. The seven positions were restored with $271,859 in one-time funding.
“It’s our job to set priorities,” she said during the meeting last Thursday night. “I think as we go through that process, it’s also our job… to decide if we’re not going to have cost savings and we’re going to add things, then what are we going to cut? Primarily how we’ve funded [these programs] is taking funds from our FY 2016 reserve.”
Raphael said the reserve in the approved budget is less than $300,000 for FY 2016. In addition to restoring the autism programs, the School Board approved ending early Wednesday release and implementing FLES programs (foreign language in elementary schools) at Oakridge, Nottingham, and Tuckahoe elementary schools.
The School Board decided to quietly eliminate the superintendent’s 1:1 Initiative, which received considerable attention when it was announced this winter. The initiative would have provided APS second-graders with Apple iPads and sixth-graders with Google Chromebooks, with plans to broaden the program to other grades in future years. The initiative was slated to cost $200,000 next year, and it was part of Murphy’s broader literacy initiative, which was slashed by $600,000 in the School Board’s adopted budget.
FY 2015 will also see a decrease in capital projects funding, with the $6.9 million allotted for 2015 coming in 13.5 percent less than 2014’s $8 million in funding.
Though the budget will push Arlington’s per pupil spending to $19,244, the highest of any suburban D.C. school system, some teachers are saying — privately — that it doesn’t deliver on APS’ pledge to attract and retain high-quality teachers. The budget includes a 2 percent cost-of-living increase and $500 one-time bonus for APS employees, but no salary step increase.
“They are not giving teachers the step increases that they promise when you are hired,” one anonymous tipster told ARLnow.com. “They are giving us cost of living increases, sometimes, which help older teachers, but not younger teachers. They keep implementing new ideas and spending loads of money [on] stuff that gives teachers more work, but not actually increasing the pay to even it out.”
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Flickr pool photo by Brian Allen
The following letter to the editor was submitted by Gordon Whitman and Julia Paley, parents of two 7th graders at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington.
As parents of a seventh grader with Autism, we have had to fight from day one to get our son what he needs. He is intellectually gifted, but struggles to meet the social and behavioral expectations in typical classrooms.
We thought middle school would be especially hard, but his last two years at Thomas Jefferson Middle School have been some of his best school years ever.
The main reason is Arlington’s model Secondary School Autism program. Experienced teachers who understand Autism teach my son, and 57 other students in four schools, social skills during their elective periods. And well-trained aides support them in regular classrooms so that they can learn all of the major subjects alongside peers who are not in special education.
The program has been a godsend for us and many other parents. So we were shocked to learn three weeks ago that Superintendent Patrick Murphy had proposed cutting seven staff members from the program. The $271,000 in cuts would reduce the number of assistants from twelve (12) to five (5), fundamentally undermining the program. This is a 60 percent cut in in-class services (at Thomas Jefferson MS, HB Woodlawn MS and HS, Yorktown HS and Washington and Lee HS).
A research firm hired by the district in 2013 rated the Secondary School Autism program as one of the top four special education programs in Arlington. Unfortunately, the administrators who worked with parents and teachers to create the program in 2009 have since left, and no one currently in leadership at the school district seems to understand or support the program.
The 2013 study found that most regular classroom teachers do not receive training on how to accommodate and assist students with Autism. The Autism assistants are trained specifically for this and they make it possible for our children to learn in the least restrictive environment, the goal of special education. The assistants anticipate, intervene in, and mitigate potential issues before they become problems.
We want our son to live an independent and successful life, and programs like this make that possible. Indeed, all students, with or without disabilities, benefit from increased attention and the expertise of the staff, and from having their peers with special needs well-supported in regular mainstream classrooms.
With the number of children being diagnosed with Autism rising, this is a time to be expanding, not cutting, successful programs.
The cuts to special education reflect the wrong priorities. The School Board is proposing to increase spending on central office expenses, buy iPads for second graders, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new public relations contracts and parent engagement. Our message is to prioritize spending that goes directly to engaging our students.
Between 2008 and 2012, the number of autistic children enrolled in Arlington Public Schools’ special education program increased by more than 50 percent — a trend that matches a national increase in autism diagnoses.
There were 276 autistic special education students in 2008. By 2012, enrollment had increased to 421, a 52.5 percent jump.
“While it seems alarming, it actually reflects the growth we are seeing in autism nationally,” APS spokeswoman Linda Erdos said of the increase. According to a government study that was released last month, the number of school age children with autism has risen 72 percent since 2007, and now stands at about 1 in 50 children ages 6 to 17.
APS “has an excellent history of services for students with autism,” Erdos said. While APS tries to integrate autistic students with the general student body, the school system does have special classes for autistic students who need extra educational support. APS is working to continue to find ways to better serve autistic students, we’re told.
On Tuesday, April 30, APS and the Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee (ASEAC) will be hosting a “Family Information Night” that will “present new initiatives and assessment tools that are designed to improve teaching for students with autism and others who learn differently.”
The event is taking place at the Arlington Education Center (1426 N. Quincy Street) between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m.
Among those expected to speak at the event are Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), Del. Patrick Hope (D), APS Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Dr. Brenda Wilks and Steven Celmer, from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Autism Center for Excellence.
Moran, who visited to Barcroft Elementary for World Autism Awareness Day last month, is expected to update families on his AUTISM Educators Act, which seeks to create a five-year pilot program that would help to train general education teachers who work with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
The bill was referred to Education and the Workforce Committee in the House of Representatives earlier this month.