Here’s another head-scratching situation for you to help me understand. There are about 100 school-aged children in my program (we serve a total of 403 children and adults) and they attend school in several different school systems in our area. Four of my students who attend Huntsville City Schools spend up to three hours a day riding a bus because their neighborhood school doesn’t have a resource classroom. Three hours is a long time for any child to spend on a bus but for a child with special needs, it’s an eternity. The first time this situation was pointed out to me, I thought of several remedies:
- Drive your child to school yourself.
- Move to a house closer to the school that is equipped to serve your child.
- Home school your child…there are no private or parochial schools in Huntsville that will accept children with special needs.
Simple enough, right? If the school in your neighborhood doesn’t offer the services your child requires, just move! If the bus ride takes too long, drive them yourself!
Oh, if it was only that easy … and if only the way we are treating kids with special needs in the Huntsville City Schools was fair.
The reason why some children have to travel so far to get to a school that’s equipped to handle their needs is because our school administration decided to consolidate resource classrooms.
And then they decided to bus children from one end of town to the other to get them to the newly consolidated resource classrooms.
And they decided to cut $7 million from our city’s special education budget to help make our bankrupt school system financially solvent. And they decided to fire most of the aides that serve those kids whose IEP calls for one, which means that kids with special needs stay isolated in the resource classroom.
And for some reason, they decided it was fair that 11% of our school population should be responsible for 61% of the budget cuts put in place in 2012 to get our schools operating in the black again (budget numbers and the calculations used to determine these percentages can be found here).
I get it … you can’t provide the services that some children need at every single neighborhood school. It’s unrealistic to expect that every school in our system should have all the resources it takes to educate children with disabilities but … if you judge a school system by how it treats its most vulnerable students, it’s my opinion that Huntsville would get an “F.”
Here’s an example: A family found out they were being relocated to Huntsville last year and began researching our school system to find the best school to serve their daughter, who has both physical and intellectual challenges. They narrowed down their choices based on all the factors you would expect – location, services offered at the school, housing costs, proximity to their jobs, etc.
They came to Huntsville to visit the schools prior to making the commitment of purchasing a home and when they went to the school that was on the top of their wish list, the principal personally said to them, “If you move into this neighborhood, your daughter will go to this school.” They loved the neighborhood, loved the school, found their dream home and bought it in April 2013. In August, two days prior to the start of the school year, they went to their neighborhood school to finalize the details for their daughter’s first day only to be told that the school was no longer able to meet their daughter’s needs and that she would be bussed across town.
I know that if I shared more details, it might make my case stronger but the parents are actively trying to get a better resolution for their child, which I don’t want to compromise. The bus picks her up at 6:30 every morning so that she can arrive at school by 8:00 a.m., and returns her home each afternoon at 4:45 … she’s the first one on and the last one off the bus each day. And yet she lives four minutes from an elementary school.
When the parents confronted the principal about this, the principal told them that while the situation is horrible, decisions are being made by school administrators in the central office, much further up the chain than a principal can control. School administrators have decided that there must be five children requiring services at a school before a resource classroom unit can be opened. Where did that number come from? Seems pretty random to me. We have 21 elementary schools in Huntsville but all of our special education students are bussed into two: Challenger Elementary or the Academy for Academics and Arts (our city’s arts magnet elementary school).
Parents are told that Governor’s Drive is the dividing line: If you live north of Governor’s Drive, you go to AAA, if you live south of Governor’s you go to Challenger. There are a lot of miles on either side of that dividing line. So, move closer to the school your child will be bussed to, right?
Well, for starters, have you tried to sell a house in the past few years? Easier said than done. And besides, our school system is making decisions in such an arbitrary manner, with no input from parents, with no opportunity for discussion and with no notice that I’d fear moving, if I was a parent, because those two schools could change next year … or turn into only one. If I had a child facing a 3-hour bus ride every day, I’d just drive them myself … unless I have a job.
How can we expect a parent to drop a child off at school and get to their own job on time if the school is 45 minutes from home, children can’t be dropped off earlier than 7:30 and they have to be at work by 8? The particulars of an individual situation can get us bogged down. The nuts and bolts of educating children with special needs are complex. The tools it takes to meet their needs are intricate.
The superintendent and school board have so much to consider when making decisions about the equitable distribution of resources in our system as they attempt to meet the needs of many different groups of children who require specialized learning environments and when they consider the number of kids they have to educate.
But children with special needs are not just a number … they are children, cherished by their families. When I think of the children my program serves, I see the faces of precious children who deserve our best and of the faces of their parents, who love them so.
I don’t have the answers but I wish our school administrators could at least acknowledge that I’m not talking about wheelchairs or diagnoses … I’m talking about children who are so much more than just their disability. What’s going to happen in five years, when those 1 in 68 children who are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders are school age? We don’t have the infrastructure in place to support kids with special needs as it is … what things will look like in five years is frightening.
I heard the superintendent of the Madison City school system say, at the 2012 State of the Schools Breakfast, “I believe we are moving toward a system where every student has his or her own IEP … where we educate children in a way that is best suited to them as individuals.”
I agree with him and if the estimates about autism are accurate, it won’t be long until the majority of our students will qualify for special education services so maybe school systems should start looking at what a system that treats each child’s education on an individual basis would look like. It’s my impression that Huntsville City School’s superintendent doesn’t look at children with special needs as anything but a number … and a problem.
I met him shortly after he moved to Huntsville and told him what I do. When I told him that I hated to hear that 10 of the families enrolled in my program had relocated to the city of Madison because they weren’t satisfied with Huntsville’s special education program, he said to me (paraphrased) … Good! Let Madison have them. Children with special needs are my worst nightmare. I never see their parents unless they are in my office, with an attorney, demanding something I don’t want to give them.
I was left to assume from this remark that the equitable distribution of resources to kids with special needs wasn’t going to be high on his priority list and his actions since then have supported my assumption. I wonder if it would be so easy for the superintendent and school board to make the spending cuts they’ve made if they just looked into the face of one child with special needs before they cut the funding that affects that child.
It looks to me like the board and superintendent only think of children with special needs as a liability … but they are so much more than that. Any decision regarding where a child will be educated should be a joint one, made by the administrators who use our tax dollars to pay for it, the teachers who have to institute it and the parents – who know and love their children better than anyone.
Yet, most parents tell me that they go into their bi-annual IEP meetings armed for battle because they have to go to war to get what their child needs and has a right to receive. 100% of the parents in my program tell me that the principal and teachers in their school are overworked, overburdened and are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given. They tell me the teachers and principals are as heartsick as they are over what we’ve done to the 2,800 children with special needs in our city schools (again, see here for verification of this number).
Where could more money for special education come from? I wish I had the answer. I always find it interesting that we rarely hear of cuts to an athletic program but arts program and special education are always the first on the chopping block.
I extend an open invitation to our superintendent and school board members to drop by Merrimack Hall any day of the week and meet my students – 403 people ranging in age from 3-64 – who have special needs.
A visit would at least illustrate for them that people with special needs are much more than numbers and deserve more than the bare minimum we have to give them. And a 15-minute visit to my program would also show them the tremendous benefit that typical kids receive when they spend time with kids who have special needs.
According to the Alabama Department of Rehabilitative Services, for every $1.00 you spend on educating a person with special needs, you save the taxpayer $7.00 over the course of that’s person’s life. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s our duty to provide kids with special needs everything we can and it saves us money in the long run.
Savings or not, I believe we have an obligation to do better for those in our community who cannot do for themselves because of their disability or special need … those special education students could have easily been my children…or yours.
How does it work in your community?
Do you have students that spend 3 hours a day on a bus so they can get to a school that has the resources they need?
Is there a more equitable way to distribute the costs of educating children with special needs?
Please share your thoughts! You can reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your anonymity will be protected.