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Parents decry closing of two Broward schools for special-needs kids

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.

Frustrated parents can also file a complaint with the state. District leaders say some of the parents now protesting have previously filed state complaints or taken the matter to court — and lost.

Kathrine Francis, executive director of Broward’s Exceptional Student Education department, said such disputes are an “emotional” battle in which parents can find it difficult to move on.

“You’re a parent fighting for your child,” Francis said. “Some fight harder, they fight stronger and longer.”

Of nearly 33,000 special-needs students in Broward, Francis stresses that fewer than 1 percent are the subject of due process court battles. Parents critical of the district say that statistic can be misleading, as fighting in court can be so intimidating (and expensive, if attorneys are hired) that many unhappy parents don’t bother.

In 2009, the Florida Department of Education organized a special on-site visit to Broward’s special-needs student programs. In a report summarizing that visit, the state wrote that one of the reasons it picked Broward was the large number of dispute resolution requests coming from the district’s special-needs parents. While still a minority of the families served, Broward’s percentage of due process court cases, complaints to the state from parents, and mediation sessions was more than 50 percent higher than the state average.

“I am shocked by that number,” said Broward School Board member Katie Leach, who spent years teaching special-needs students in the district, and is herself the mother of a special-needs child. Leach for a time worked as a special-needs consultant for Nova Southeastern University, and traveled the country setting up student programs in other school districts.

“Comparatively, Broward wasn’t perfect, but was much further ahead of the curve in the quality of programs that we’re providing kids,” Leach said. She still believes Broward’s special-needs care is top-notch, though mistakes can always occur.

For the 2011-12 school year, state figures show both Miami-Dade and Broward school districts had the same number of parent dispute resolution requests (50), though Miami-Dade’s came from a significantly larger pool of students.

Regarding the planned closures of two special-needs educational centers, Leach said the under enrollment there is a direct consequence of federal rules that require disabled students to be placed in a traditional school setting whenever possible. By consolidating the centers, Leach said Broward will have the resources to offer kids a wider range of elective classes, and students can be broken into groups by grade level — as opposed to teaching different grades all at once because the current schools are so small.

That sales pitch isn’t working with many parents, however. They complain about having no real input in the district’s decision-making process, and they say administrators fail to grasp how damaging these forced relocations will be. Parent Mellissa Smith said the unique sense of community at Wingate Oaks has allowed her son, Ellijah, who is autistic and non-verbal, to get over his separation anxiety and enjoy attending school. At 13 years old, Ellijah is finally potty trained, and for the first time in his life has made friends with classmates. Staff at the school intuitively understand the meaning of Ellijah’s different silent gestures, Smith said.

“He’s going to go back to ‘throwing poo’ days, because all of this is being taken from him,” Smith said. “He has friends ... I never thought he would have friends ... little stuff like that, it matters big.”