Parents in the autism program at St. Paul‘s Benjamin E. Mays International Magnet School love the spring play starring each student. They love the teachers and the interactive whiteboards in each classroom.
When they heard some students might have to switch schools next fall under a district overhaul, they rallied to oppose the change at a recent school board meeting.
The district is applying the learning-closer-to-home philosophy of its Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan to programs for students with autism, behavioral disabilities and other special needs. Next year, smaller programs will serve students at more neighborhood schools. Officials say that approach will give kids a better chance at easing into mainstream classrooms.
“We’re trying to break with this sense that special education programs are entities unto themselves rather than integral parts of the schools,” said Matthew Mohs, the district’s chief academic officer.
But some parents argue there’s strength in numbers at larger programs like the one at Ben Mays. They wonder if the district is giving itself enough time to handle a major shift for students who often struggle with transitions.
Last month, some Ben Mays parents received two letters, both dated Jan. 7. The one from the special education department told parents their student would have to move to an as-yet-unknown school. The one from the student placement center said their student would have a spot at Ben Mays, which unlike many district schools will remain a citywide magnet next fall.
Last week, the district announced it would allow students in the Ben Mays autism program to finish elementary school there.
St. Paul has nine self-contained autism programs across its roughly 70 schools. Next year, there will be twice as many, but they’ll be smaller. They’ll have two or three classrooms at the most, compared with as many as five now at the Ben Mays program, which serves more than 40 students.
The change is in keeping with the spirit of Strong Schools. Under the plan, most students will go to schools in their neighborhoods, except those attending magnet schools.
“We’re not talking about dismantling quality programs,” said Mohs. “We’re talking about replicating quality programs and doing it in a way that’s equitable across the district.”
Like regular education students, children with autism will follow set “pathways” from elementary to middle to high school; that will help the district prepare them better for each transition.
Special Education Director Elizabeth Keenan says large concentrations of students with intensive needs can overwhelm schools. In recent years, schools have striven to include such students more in mainstream classrooms and activities.
Smaller programs will mean they can do that more often without pushing up class sizes and risking disruption. According to Keenan, the changes will affect about 200 students next fall; 6,800 receive special education services in the district.
To Ben Mays parents, the changes could threaten a program that — in the district administration’s lexicon — they dub “a pocket of excellence.”
“This pocket is successful in large part because of its size,” Dave Silvester, the father of fourth-grade twins in the program, told the school board last month.
Thanks to its size, parents say, the program enjoys a full-time team of support specialists such as an occupational therapist. Alone among district autism programs, it has interactive whiteboards in each classroom.
Such technology makes it easier to engage students using several senses at once. On a recent morning in one Ben Mays classroom, students belted out multiplication problems to a high-energy rap tune as numbers flashed against a bright-pink screen.
Most important, parents feel the program’s size has made it a force to be reckoned with at the school, which has cultivated a unique culture of inclusion. Children with autism have breakfast and a morning meeting with their general education peers; they spend time in mainstream classrooms in clusters, which takes away some of the anxiety of traveling between rooms.
Norma Crumble told the school board her third-grade daughter struggled at a different school. In kindergarten, she hid under tables in the busy cafeteria. In first grade, she regularly disrupted her class.
She joined the Ben Mays program later that year, and within months, she stopped acting out.
“She has since grown into a little social butterfly,” Crumble said.
After about a dozen parents addressed the board, Superintendent Valeria Silva thanked them and told them the district plans to let their children stay put. Last week, it became official: The district will make an exception for Ben Mays, grandfathering current families.
“It’s a really special program,” Keenan said.
Families at other programs are nervous about the upcoming moves.
On the one hand, Gina Ruppert said she agrees the district needs more neighborhood special education programs. Her 13-year-old son spends more than an hour on a school bus from their Mac-Groveland neighborhood to the autism program at Washington Technology Magnet in the North End.
She started preparing her son for his earlier move to Washington in January — a transition that to children with autism can feel like “moving from the South Pole to the North Pole,” she said.
The district said it might be March before parents know where their students will go to school next year.
“It’s cruel they are making us wait until March,” said Ruppert, who also doesn’t know where her sixth-grade daughter in the Ben Mays autism program will go to school next year. “It’s agonizing.”
And Ben Mays parents like Michele Silvester worry about the future of that program if it shrinks with the departure of grandfathered families. She wonders: Can the district really tell families of kids with autism that they alone do not have the choice to enroll in a districtwide magnet?
Jan Ormasa, executive director of Minnesota Administrators for Special Education, said districts across the state have to strike a delicate balance.
“We’re always trying to make sure we’re not overloading some schools,” she said. “When you have a smaller special education community, there are more opportunities for students to spend time in mainstream classrooms.”
Barbara Luskin, consulting psychologist at the Autism Society of Minnesota, said both the district’s arguments for change and the parents’ anxieties resonate with her. She said parents should be asking a lot of questions, such as: How will the district prepare students for the transition? How will it prepare the staff at schools with new programs to welcome students with more intensive special needs?
Mohs said the district plans to provide extensive staff training. It will work hard to foster Ben Mays’ culture of support for special education students across all schools.
“It’s ultimately about balance, and that’s hard to achieve,” he said. “There’s no perfect formula.”