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District's facilities planning process raises concerns on survival of special ed programs

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In a January presentation to the School Reform Commission, District officials introduced their plans to "right-size" the many half-empty, aging facilities but offered no specifics on how closures and consolidations could impact special education services, especially those for severely disabled students.

The District did say it will "implement a phase-in model of inclusion whenever possible" while providing for co-teaching with special and regular education teachers. District spokesperson Elizabeth Childs said that as part of the downsizing process, "We are looking at how the District's special education programming looks now, including programs like Life Skills Support (LSS)." She added that at community meetings around potential closures, 55 percent of participants cited LSS classes as a "must have" for their local school.

Yet it is unclear what happens to LSS classes or such programs as Strategies for Teaching Based on Autism Research (STAR) if schools housing these critical programs close or consolidate.

Life skills and autism support are two of many programs managed by the District's Office of Specialized Instruction.

The LSS classes teach the severely disabled everyday tasks like taking a carton of milk out of the refrigerator or tying a pair of shoes. They are staffed by teachers, nurses, and teacher's aides.

The STAR program teaches children expressive and receptive language, pre-academic skills, play, and social skills to improve general functioning.

Hunter Elementary in Kensington has three teachers and 17 students in its LSS classrooms. Hunter's is one of the many programs serving 1,200 severely disabled children districtwide.

LaJuan (not his real name) is one of three students in Joanmarie Cruz's LSS class at Hunter. He is blind and deaf but is not in a world of his own. He engages with the class.

Cruz helps LaJuan and others connect through one-on-one interaction. She often rubs students' hands with lotion to provide tactile stimulation, soothe anxiety, and get their attention. "I do a lot of sensory stimulation … touch, smell, and sight," she said.

Disability rights groups, parents, and other advocates applaud the personal touch and hope the consolidation of facilities will not make these programs less accessible.

"Hopefully the District would be mindful of the 'least restrictive environment' requirement of the federal special education law," said Jennifer Lowman, a staff attorney at the Education Law Center. The law protects against isolating special education students in a building.

The District's relationships with special needs children and their families may be strained by upcoming changes.

"I am deeply concerned when the discussion of school closures comes up because the Nebinger School is repeatedly on the chopping block," said Nebinger parent Cathy Roccia-Meier, who has a son with autism in the 8th grade. She sits on the board of the ARC of Philadelphia and is a member of the Local Right to Education Task Force.

Nebinger serves Bella Vista and Queen Village, where high property values and low enrollment could make the school a target for closure, she said.

The irony, Roccia-Meier said, is that a low pupil-to-teacher ratio – eight to ten students per class – allows teachers to give personalized instruction to students with autism spectrum disorder and Asperger syndrome.

"Nebinger's small size allows for each student to be an individual, known by a staff that is more like family … The idea that they can take students who crave routine and structure and uproot them and expect it to not hinder their education is ludicrous."

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