Changes to autism program prompt parent concerns

A shift planned for fall raises questions about whatÂ’s best for students

Dressed in blue in a show of unity, parents protested changes to the district's autism program at School Board meeting. Credit: Dylan Thomas

LYNNHURST — Parents of students with autism are urging Minneapolis Public Schools to reconsider changes to the district’s autism program slated for next fall.

The district’s plan affects just three schools where some, but not all, special autism classrooms will close, as well as a small group of incoming kindergarteners diagnosed with autism. Some of those kindergarteners — just fewer than half of the group of 49 — will attend schools that aren’t a part of the district’s citywide autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, program.

The changes mean the district is closing three classrooms at citywide ASD program host sites — one each at Jenny Lind, Folwell and Burroughs, where parents began raising questions about the changes when they became widely known in May. About a dozen parents from across the district, many wearing blue in a show of unity, spoke against the changes at the June 9 School Board meeting.

Among them was Nicole Fortuin, whose son, Remy, attends Bancroft Elementary, one of 11 district elementary schools that have citywide ASD program classrooms. Fortuin, who like others said she was caught off-guard by the plan, urged the School Board to call a special meeting to discuss the program changes.

“Autistic kindergarteners are not the kind of population you want to experiment broadly with,” she said.

District officials said they first discussed the plan with the Special Education Advisory Council, a group that includes parents, several years ago. Students who need the most intense forms of support will still have access to the citywide ASD program, but they’re making changes to allow more students with autism to attend their neighborhood schools, regardless of whether or not that school is a citywide ASD site.

“We really now are able to say to parents we can provide you with some high-quality services at your neighborhood school,” Chief Academic Officer Susanne Griffin said. 

A program that works

Still, some parents are wondering why the district would change a program they credit for their students’ achievements.

“What this program does is it works, and it’s allowing our kids to learn and … to function better, academically and socially,” said Anne Ursu, whose son, Dash, just completed second grade at Burroughs.

Ursu and other parents said they disliked that the district described the changes as affecting only students with “mild” forms of autism. Dash spends the majority of his time in a general education classroom, not a special education classroom, but Ursu said his success depended on access to an autism classroom and specially trained staff.

“Unfortunately, you’re putting the autistic kids in a situation where they’re going to be disruptive in the classrooms because they’re not getting all that support,” she said.

Rochelle Cox, executive director of special education, said in 2014–2015 there were about 550 students in the citywide ASD program and nearly 200 attending neighborhood schools but getting some support from the district. There will be staffing adjustments next fall, in part to support the more than 20 incoming kindergarteners whose families opted for a neighborhood school without the citywide ASD program, Cox said.

The staffing changes mean special education resource teachers, or SERTs, will have slightly smaller caseloads next year, working with roughly 20 students instead of 23. SERTs don’t necessarily have expertise in autism, but so-called “itinerant” teachers with that specialty will float between schools, working with both students and staff, Cox said.

Some parents, though, are left with doubts. With resources spread out among more schools, the district “might be scrambling just to provide the minimal support,” Fortuin said.

Some also suggested the changes were motivated by cost-cutting, but Griffin said delivering services to more widely dispersed students “could be more expensive, to some degree.”

Choosing the mainstream

School Board Member Carla Bates is the parent of a daughter with autism who attended Minneapolis Public Schools, and while sympathetic to parents’ concerns, she said she is “100-percent behind this change.”

Bates said as the district developed a strong citywide ASD program, it became too willing to channel students into schools outside their neighborhoods. She described the Burroughs program as wonderful, but said it was “being treated as a magnet school for kids on the spectrum.”

“Our general education needs to be better so we don’t have such a (high) referral (rate) to special education,” she said.

Liz Hannan, a parent who recently completed a two-year term as co-chair of Special Education Advisory Council, was one of a few parents who spoke in favor of the district’s plan at the June 9 School Board meeting.

“I am totally in support of students being able to go, if their needs are addressed and met, to their neighborhood school,” Hannan said.

It’s a choice she made with her son, Michael Grace, who has Down syndrome. After attending Lake Harriet Community School, one of the district’s developmental cognitive disability (DCD) program sites, he’ll transition with most of his classmates to Southwest High School next year instead of following the DCD pathway to Washburn — “and I have been anxious about it for several years,” she added.

But, she continued, with the right supports in place Grace will be able to continue learning alongside friends and acquaintances.

“Our goal has always been for him to be included in the mainstream as much as possible,” Hannan said. “He’s had a great success (at Lake Harriet). He’s just a part of the fabric of the school.”