Archive for Friday, May 23, 2003

Closings create special-ed worries

Shutting down of three schools may mean tough transition for some students

May 23, 2003


This is the last day of fifth grade for Ben Berlin, and the first day of his monumental transition in Lawrence public schools.

Ben, a special-education student with Asperger Syndrome, will be required to move next year to Deerfield School, the district's largest elementary building, from Riverside School, the district's smallest. The school board is closing Riverside.

"He's very distractible," said Mari White, Ben's mother. "If I had a choice, I would not choose an environment where there are big classrooms. I don't think that's a good environment."

Closure today of three elementary schools in Lawrence -- Riverside, East Heights and Centennial -- will result in the shuffling of hundreds of elementary students among the 15 remaining school sites.

Most vulnerable among the transferring students will be 51 children with mild to severe disabilities.

"It sounds huge to me," said Charlotte Pessoni, a parent support specialist at the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence. "I think change for special-needs children can be particularly challenging."

She said parents who had found a stable school setting for a child with disabilities agonized about switching to a new teacher, grade level or school.

Catch-up time

The district has a good reputation for accommodating special-needs students, Pessoni said. But the level of school-to-school, teacher-to-teacher, parent-to-district and student-to-teacher communication necessary to pull off these transfers will be enormous, she said.

"That's a lot of catching up," Pessoni said. "I don't know how easily that can be accomplished."

Bruce Passman, the district's executive director of special services, said extra attention was being paid to movement of students caught up in consolidation.

He said district staff recognized last fall that transition planning for special-education students wasn't sufficient.

This spring, he said, the district has been working to gather and share more information about special-education students, organizing more meetings with the parents and taking more students on tours of new schools. Collaborative orientation activities will continue in the summer, he said.

"So long as people are open and communicating and identify issues, most of those can be resolved," Passman said. "Does it happen 100 percent of the time? Probably not."

Passman said the key, and Pessoni agreed, was maintaining a dialogue.

"There's a lot of information to be shared on a fairly short timeline," Passman said.

One boy's journey

In Ben's case, his transition from Riverside to Deerfield is made challenging by Asperger Syndrome. It's a condition in which people have normal intelligence and language development, but exhibit autistic-like behaviors and deficiencies in social and communication skills.

For now, Ben said there were pluses and minuses to the school board's decision to send him to Deerfield.

"I have mixed feelings," the boy said. "I like Deerfield. I met some people I enjoyed."

However, he said, his best friend at Riverside will be transferred to Pinckney. She helped keep Ben focused in class, his mom said.

"If they would keep extra teachers (at Deerfield), that would be good," White said. "Even if they brought in more portables and had smaller classes at Deerfield, that would be better."

Unease all around

Other families in the school district are experiencing similar uneasiness.

Lori Mills, the parent of two children with autism, said the transition for her 11-year-old daughter, Dellara Ahmidi, from East Heights to New York School could be rocky.

Continuity among staff working with students with disabilities is important, Mills said.

"Often times, staff can underestimate serious problems," she said. "(Dellara's) teacher is not going to New York. I'm afraid she (Dellara) will regress."

Kianoosh Ahmidi, 5, will be allowed to enroll at Cordley School, which was a relief to Mills. Cordley is a cluster site for children with autism, and teachers there should have a good grasp of her son's needs, she said.

"I'm feeling very, very good about his transition," Mills said.

Neither White nor Mills questioned the commitment of teachers at Deerfield, Cordley or New York. But both said they were incapable of repressing anxiety about the start of classes in August.

That could be said nearly 50 times over.

"So much is at stake," White said.

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