Broward superintendent recommends keeping one special-needs school open, closing another

The battle to save two Broward schools serving students with special needs came to an end on Thursday — with two starkly different outcomes.

At one Fort Lauderdale school, Sunset School Center, parents and teachers were visibly angry and teary-eyed after Superintendent Robert Runcie announced the district will move forward with plans to close it, despite their objections. One blonde-haired woman simply shook her head, over and over, while Runcie delivered the news.

An hour later a few miles away, Runcie told parents and staff at Fort Lauderdale’s Wingate Oaks Center that the school will continue to serve its medically fragile students from kindergarten to 12th grade, though it will not enroll new students. Dozens of parents and staffers at once jumped to their feet and erupted in cheers.

“You’ve got great staff at this school that have been doing tremendous work,” Runcie told parents. “They’re going to be here, and we’re going to continue to support them.”

Runcie’s final decision on the two schools is technically only a recommendation — School Board members will have to formally adopt the changes at a vote that could happen as soon as next month. But because Runcie enjoys the strong support of most board members, it’s likely his recommendation will be followed.

The split decision regarding the two schools was in many ways driven by their two separate missions — Sunset primarily serves students with behavioral or psychological issues, while Wingate is filled with medically fragile children who sometimes need assistance with basic tasks such as using the bathroom.

Runcie said that about 95 percent of the students at Sunset have the academic ability to earn a standard high school diploma, and so would benefit from the additional resources and programs available at the two other special-needs centers they will be transferred to.

The district says both Wingate and Sunset are underenrolled, a situation that has forced students from different grade levels to be grouped together, among other drawbacks. Combined, the schools serve fewer than 200 students.

Runcie initially pitched the two school closings as an efficiency measure that would also benefit students, but parents and staff at both locations fought hard against the proposal.

In the case of Wingate, Runcie said the severe medical conditions of students there was a factor in his decision to keep the school open. Some Wingate students must wear diapers; at least one can only eat through a feeding tube.

But Wingate’s long-term future is now a question mark: Parents are free to transfer their child elsewhere if they like, and as students grow older and graduate, Broward will face the dilemma of justifying a school that houses fewer and fewer students.

Wingate parent Mellissa Smith held her son Ellijah, their heads resting against each other, while she listened to Runcie announce the school will remain open. Smith had worried that Ellijah, who is autistic and non-verbal, would suffer dramatically from a forced move.

Though Smith acknowledged Wingate’s long-term survival isn’t assured, she said the school now has a chance to convince the district — through strong performance by students and staff — that it deserves to stay permanently open. Smith described the situation as “this cup is three-quarters full.”

“It’s three-quarters full of hope,” Smith said. “I’m up for the challenge.”

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