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Letter to the Editor: Proposed Cuts to APS Autism Program

By ARLnow.com

Saturday - 5/3/2014, 12:00pm  ET

The following letter to the editor was submitted by Gordon Whitman and Julia Paley, parents of two 7th graders at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington.

As parents of a seventh grader with Autism, we have had to fight from day one to get our son what he needs. He is intellectually gifted, but struggles to meet the social and behavioral expectations in typical classrooms.

We thought middle school would be especially hard, but his last two years at Thomas Jefferson Middle School have been some of his best school years ever.

The main reason is Arlington’s model Secondary School Autism program. Experienced teachers who understand Autism teach my son, and 57 other students in four schools, social skills during their elective periods. And well-trained aides support them in regular classrooms so that they can learn all of the major subjects alongside peers who are not in special education.

The program has been a godsend for us and many other parents. So we were shocked to learn three weeks ago that Superintendent Patrick Murphy had proposed cutting seven staff members from the program. The $271,000 in cuts would reduce the number of assistants from twelve (12) to five (5), fundamentally undermining the program. This is a 60 percent cut in in-class services (at Thomas Jefferson MS, HB Woodlawn MS and HS, Yorktown HS and Washington and Lee HS).

A research firm hired by the district in 2013 rated the Secondary School Autism program as one of the top four special education programs in Arlington. Unfortunately, the administrators who worked with parents and teachers to create the program in 2009 have since left, and no one currently in leadership at the school district seems to understand or support the program.

The 2013 study found that most regular classroom teachers do not receive training on how to accommodate and assist students with Autism. The Autism assistants are trained specifically for this and they make it possible for our children to learn in the least restrictive environment, the goal of special education. The assistants anticipate, intervene in, and mitigate potential issues before they become problems.

We want our son to live an independent and successful life, and programs like this make that possible.  Indeed, all students, with or without disabilities, benefit from increased attention and the expertise of the staff, and from having their peers with special needs well-supported in regular mainstream classrooms.

With the number of children being diagnosed with Autism rising, this is a time to be expanding, not cutting, successful programs.

The cuts to special education reflect the wrong priorities. The School Board is proposing to increase spending on central office expenses, buy iPads for second graders, and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new public relations contracts and parent engagement. Our message is to prioritize spending that goes directly to engaging our students.

As parents we are urging the School Board to (1) restore the $271,000 in funding; (2) retain the existing ratio of students to staff; and (3) work with parents and staff to develop a plan to expand this successful program so that other students and schools can participate.

We are joined by the Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee (ASEAC), PTA associations at our schools and hundreds of parents, teachers, and administrators in opposing these cuts.

At last week’s School Board Meeting, school board member Noah Simon shared that he had visited the program at Thomas Jefferson earlier in the day, and then proposed a motion that was approved by the board to create a $150,000 contingency fund in case additional aides are needed for the Autism program. While this motion was an effort to respond to the concerns raised by parents, it does little to solve the problem.

The Administrators in charge of Special Education have said that they do not think the assistants are necessary. In all likelihood, we would still lose seven well-trained assistants. Even if money were to be made available for assistants during the year, they might not be trained to work with children with Autism, and $150,000 would support only 3 assistants.

Forcing each of us to fight individually for assistant time for our children does not assure they will get the support they need or that it will come from trained staff. Nor will it save money. If each family presses for an assistant in their child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), and if more children need expensive out-of-district placements, then the costs to the district are likely to be higher as a result of this misguided decision. That is why we are continuing to press for full restoration of the program.

The Arlington School Board will vote on a final budget on May 22. The last opportunity for the public to make its views heard on the budget is May 8.

Please visit our petition site to make your voice heard. Here is a report that parents produced about the program and its success.

To submit a letter to the editor, please email it to arlingtonnews@gmail.com. Letters to the editor may be edited for content and brevity.