Students with milder forms of autism will soon go to their own neighborhood schools in Minneapolis rather than a specialized school. Some parents do not want to see the current program change, and they're especially concerned for incoming kindergartners who won't receive the same attention and care their own kids have benefited from at the Burroughs Community School.
"I know how much good it has done for my child. I don't know where he would be without it, he would not be able to function in a classroom" parent Anne Ursu said.
Minneapolis Public Schools have a certain number of schools with autism programs in which several experts are always on-hand as well as special education assistants. According to the district, the plan is to start providing services for mildly autistic students at all community schools, which shifts some of the resources from the current program to a larger number of schools.
Parents are concerned there aren't enough experts to disseminate among all schools. In addition, some schools might have just one or two children on the autism spectrum, which singles them out, they said. Some parents plan to address the school board next week and say they wish their opinions had been heard before the decision was made.
In a letter to the school board Ursu said her child, as well as others, are able to spend more time in a "mainstream" environment because of the existing program.
"The autism program is essential to the education of the students it serves. These students need the care, experience, and knowledge of certified autism teachers to help them regulate themselves so they can sit in a mainstream classroom with almost thirty other kids, process information, and learn. My son would not be able to function in a general ed classroom without his three years in the Burroughs autism program, and many parents at Friday's Q&A said the same about their children. My child has moved up from federal education setting 3 to 2 because of the program; he, like so many other kids, can spend more time in a mainstream environment because the program exists. Without it, he would need to be segregated. (And once segregated into a level III school, he might find it impossible to move up if it meant moving out of his support system. The flexibility of the Burroughs program allowed him to gradually make the shift.) It is the autism program that will help these students meet the goals set by the audit," she wrote.A letter to the school board
Ursu wrote the following message to the school board:
To the Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent and School Board:
Since we received a letter from our principal about staffing cuts in the Burroughs Community School Autism Program, concerned parents of kids in the program have been attempting to get answers. Why would a program that families have been desperate to get into every year suddenly have such a drastic drop in enrollment? But our requests to the district were ignored. Moreover, we found parents of kids in other citywide autism programs in similar situations, with equal luck in getting more information. We finally got a Q&A with district officials because one Burroughs parent had a phone appointment with someone in the Special Ed office about another matter, and so was able to force a response.
We were hoping we would get straight answers from the district at the Q&A, but we only got further obfuscation and deception. The representatives from the special ed department led us to believe that the reason Burroughs' autism program has no incoming kindergartners is parents were choosing to send their children to their community schools. No one wanted to come to Burroughs, thus our staff had to be cut.
But this simply isn't true. In a matter of days, our parent group has found several families who wanted to come to Burroughs but were told Burroughs was closed to kindergartners next year. And we are hearing reports of similar things happening to other schools in the district with citywide programs. It seems the district is beginning to starve out the autism program. (And now we're hearing that early childhood classrooms are being cut and class sizes are increasing to their maximum size, making for a bigger and more chaotic classroom for vulnerable young children with autism.)
At the May 22 meeting at Burroughs, we were told by Amy Johnson, the Director of Special Education Programs for the district, that the citywide program was being reworked because parents wanted their kids in their community schools. Yet according to the special education audit conducted last year, 73% of parents responded that they were satisfied with placement and school choice (DMC report, p. 42). It's difficult to believe that the plan has anything to do with choice; rather, it seems to be about decreasing the number of students in special settings in order to help the district reach target numbers.
But the purported goal of the DMC special education audit wasn't about numbers; it was to help Minneapolis better educate its special needs kids. While the DMC advocated more mainstreaming, they specifically cited students with learning disabilities and emotional disabilities as the ones who could show success in a mainstream environment-not students with autism (18). They also noted that while citywide programs "tend to be separate from general education classrooms," this tendency does not necessarily hold for students with autism (17). The autism program does not equal segregation. But in our meeting Rochelle Cox told us that part of the problem was MPS has too many students in Federal Setting 3 programs and it's missing the state target. It is inappropriate to target the autism program in response to this audit or to general pressure to reduce the number of students in special settings. If MPS proceeds with this plan, they will fail its students.
The autism program is essential to the education of the students it serves. These students need the care, experience, and knowledge of certified autism teachers to help them regulate themselves so they can sit in a mainstream classroom with almost thirty other kids, process information, and learn. My son would not be able to function in a general ed classroom without his three years in the Burroughs autism program, and many parents at Friday's Q&A said the same about their children. My child has moved up from federal education setting 3 to 2 because of the program; he, like so many other kids, can spend more time in a mainstream environment because the program exists. Without it, he would need to be segregated. (And once segregated into a level III school, he might find it impossible to move up if it meant moving out of his support system. The flexibility of the Burroughs program allowed him to gradually make the shift.) It is the autism program that will help these students meet the goals set by the audit.
The proposed changes in the autism program are hasty and uninformed. They have been made behind the backs of the parents currently in the program, and without the advice or knowledge of the autism teachers who are best able to speak for the needs of kids with autism in Minneapolis. No one who sat through that meeting on Friday could argue that these changes are in the best interests of children with autism in the district. If they were, why were the people who could best speak about the program left out of the process?
If we had not been left out, we could have told you that the path to allowing the ASD students who need the program to function in a mainstream environment is to give them thoughtful, informed intervention in their elementary years. We could have told you that the small size of the Early Childhood Special Education classrooms is imperative to the functioning of the kids in those classrooms. We could have told you that throwing high-needs ASD kids in a regular classroom with minimal support and teachers who are not trained to meet their needs is asking for disaster for everyone. We could have told you all about the phone calls you'll be getting from mainstream parents. We could have told you that MPS is known widely among clinicians as one of the few places in the area that well serves students with autism-it is a strength, not a weakness.
By scattering these children through the district, you will deprive them of key emotional benefits of the program. Our kids have a peer group in the program. They have friends. And because of the spirit the program builds in the school community they are treated with kindness and understanding from mainstream kids and protected from bullying. Taking that away from these kids will open them up to isolation and, because of the increased likelihood of bullying for the sole autistic child in a class, perhaps lifelong trauma.
I ask that all progress made toward the new plan be halted. I ask that no changes are made in the current autism program without serious, careful, thorough investigation of the particular needs of students with autism.
I ask that Burroughs, as well as other citywide programs slated for cuts, should be opened back up to the families that wanted to send their children there, and the program funded at its current level. We are being told families want more choice, and yet the families who wanted Burroughs were not given that choice. We are currently in the process of connecting those families with advocates. The Burroughs program is a tremendously successful one, a jewel in the district, and it should be celebrated, not cut.
I ask that the information and recommendations given to any incoming ASD child be carefully audited, and the district immediately take steps to rectify any misinformation families were given, and that same standards are used for admittance into the autism program as in past years. Students' needs have not changed.
I ask that early childhood autism classrooms stay no bigger than five or six children, as they have been for years, so these kids can learn to regulate themselves in a peaceful environment, with the careful attention of a teacher with a small caseload, and be better able to function in elementary school.
I ask that the person in the district who oversees autism be fully equipped to speak for the particular needs of autistic children, passionate about helping these children, and understands the essential nature of the autism program in meeting these needs from early childhood on. That person should be respectful and responsive to the parents whose children are served by the program. That person needs to serve more than target numbers and the bottom line.
Our kids are thriving in the autism program. Minneapolis Public Schools has something that works; it should not be dismantled based on haste and poor information. We are not concerned solely for Burroughs kids, but for all of the children with autism in Minneapolis, especially those whose families are not in a position to fight back. We do not intend to let the district leave them behind.