Special education on a new path

District plan to move classrooms surprised some parents

WHITTIER — While scores of anxious parents flocked to community meetings on a Minneapolis Public Schools restructuring plan last fall, Jennifer Bommentre thought she could relax.

Like some other parents of special education students, Bommentre and her husband, Mark Reckin, were under the impression that their child would be spared the impact of sweeping changes planned for fall 2010 — at least for one school year. That wasn’t exactly true.

Starting about one month before the restructuring plan, Changing School Options was approved by the School Board Sept. 22, and continuing into early January, officials in the district’s Special Education Department reworked the pathways special education students follow from school to school. Next fall, most schools with citywide special education programs will see new classrooms added or existing classrooms taken away as pathways shift across the district.

Among the changes was the phasing-out over two years of an autism program at Whittier International Elementary School attended by Bommentre and Reckin’s son, Allen. A program for students with emotional and behavioral disorders will take its place.

Whittier Parent Teacher Association President Lisa Cargill-Romsaas said a letter to special education families dated Jan. 5 gave some examples of the changing special education pathways, but included no specific information on Whittier.

“If I have one complaint through the whole thing it is the communication to families has been horrible,” Cargill-Romsaas said.

Mirroring CSO

Changing School Options aimed to cut district spending on facilities and transportation by closing some schools and introducing new busing rules that would keep most children in schools closer to their homes.

Special Education Executive Director Donald Allen said changes to the district’s special education pathways were an attempt to keep those students closer to home, too.

The new pathways also were designed to mirror the pathways of regular education students, so that more special education students would follow their regular education peers from elementary to middle to high school. Families with students in both special education and regular education programs could have an easier time keeping their students in the same school, a significant benefit, Allen said.

He said the special education classrooms were relocated in some cases to achieve a “more equitable” distribution of programs throughout the district. Just as with Changing School Options, the changes also aim to reduce spending on busing, he added.

“We didn’t add any additional [classrooms] or subtract any, and we tried to leave as many alone as we possibly could,” he said.

The changes were “cost-neutral,” he said.

Allen said he was not involved in the earliest stages of Changing School Options planning, but was brought in near the end of the summer after a plan to create three new transportation zones within the district emerged. Those zones go into effect next fall, and limit student placement choices to either schools in their zones or a few citywide options.

When Changing School Options was approved last fall, special education families were told their students would still be bused across zone boundaries, at least for one school year.

Aditi Kapil, another parent with a child in Whittier’s autism program, said that statement — repeated often last fall — set up this winter’s surprise.

“We were all calling (the district) and asking and every single one of us was told not to worry until next year,” Kapil said.

Transitions

When asked to comment on the perceived lack of communication, Allen said: “I’m sorry that they didn’t find out sooner, but I’m not sure why that transpired.”

He pointed out that parents and district staff had discussed the pathway changes regularly since September at the monthly Special Education Advisory Council meetings, which are open to the public. Those meetings drew about 19 people, on average, from September to February, according to minutes posted on the district website.

Bommentre described an overwhelmingly positive history of working with the district’s special education teachers at Whittier and other schools. Still, the upcoming move for Allen had her worried.

“Transitions for autism kids are hard,” she said.

Both Bommentre and Kapil had the option to keep their students at Whittier for one more school year. While a classroom for older students will move next fall, theirs will remain through the 2010–2011 school year.

Still, they both said learning about the changes sooner could have influenced their school choice for next fall. School choice cards were due Jan. 31, only a few days after Bommentre said she first learned of the plan for Whittier.

A document from the Sept. 22 School Board meeting that included a final vote on Changing School Options included a district estimate that about 7 percent of special education students would change schools next fall. In late February, Allen said he couldn’t be certain that figure was still accurate.

“I don’t think we’ll know exactly how much kids will end up moving for probably several more weeks,” he said.