If you ask parents why they value Broward’s Wingate Oaks Educational Center — and why they’re so furious about its imminent closure — the answer often boils down to trust.
The school for medically fragile children is a place where students might need help going to the restroom, and parents trust the teachers and staff to respect their child’s dignity. David Martinez’s 7-year-old daughter, Anabelle, must eat lunch through a feeding tube, and it took time for Martinez to let Wingate Oaks’ nursing staff handle that delicate procedure.
“It’s not right, it’s not right,” Martinez says about the school’s closing. “On the backs of our children, they want to save money.”
Broward’s school district has defended its plan to close Wingate Oaks, along with another special-needs school, Sunset Learning Center. Both Fort Lauderdale schools are set to shut down at the end of the school year. The district calls it a move toward operational efficiency, as both centers are at well under 50 percent capacity — combined, they serve fewer than 200 students. The district says that students who are relocated to the county’s remaining four centers that focus on kids with special needs will benefit from expanded programming. Any savings realized from the closures will be reinvested in the classroom, Superintendent Robert Runcie said.
“I recognize that people don’t like change, but they also need to have an open mind about this,” Runcie said. “This is going to provide better outcomes for their students.”
Parents at the schools remain angry — one group in a growing chorus of special-needs families who are upset with the school district.
In recent weeks, a whole other group of infuriated parents (unaffected by the two school closures) have trekked down to Broward School Board meetings to criticize the system as flawed. They accuse district staff of having a combative attitude with parents, forcing parents to go to court for reasonable requests, and pushing disabled students off the academic path to a traditional diploma.
Parents’ verbal exchanges with School Board members have at times turned nasty — one parent recently turned her back on board members while she spoke to them to symbolize how the district had turned its back on her daughter.
Unhappy parents have formed a special-needs task force to plot strategy. There’s been talk of filing a class-action lawsuit.
“People react when they’re not heard,” said Broward parent Rhonda Ward, who is part of that task force.
Ideally, decisions regarding special-needs children — how difficult their courses should be and what support services and therapies they should receive — are made by a cooperative team that includes parents, teachers, school psychologists and other district staff. In many cases, everyone successfully works together to create an individualized education plan for a disabled child. A well-thought-out plan will allow the child to reach his or her full academic potential, while avoiding unrealistic expectations that doom the student to repeated failures and disappointment.
The problem is, parents and school staff may not agree on what goals are realistic, and those differences of opinion can easily end up in court. For example, a parent who is unhappy with the district’s evaluation of her child can request the hiring of an outside independent evaluator — at taxpayers’ expense. The district then has two options: Pay the outside expert, or take the matter to a state administrative judge in a “due process” hearing, and argue that an outside second opinion isn’t needed.