Location matters

For Jeffco students with special needs enrolled at schools slated for closure, more questions than answers

Students with special needs enrolled in programs at five Jeffco schools recommended for closure face additional uncertainty about where they might end up going to school next year.

Jeffco Public Schools said it hopes to keep the same services intact, just at different locations. But while the district already has announced which schools would get displaced students from the five elementary schools, the special needs centers could be placed elsewhere in the district — and families won’t know where until 30 days after Thursday’s scheduled vote on the closures.

The district is looking to significantly cut its budget in part because of the failure of two November tax requests and in part to pay teachers a more competitive salary.

The programs that could be moved include centers for students with autism at Pennington Elementary in Wheat Ridge and Swanson Elementary in Arvada, and centers for students with physical and other significant needs at Peck Elementary in Arvada, Pleasant View Elementary in Golden and Stober Elementary in Lakewood.

The programs at the five schools serve 77 students this year. Not all students with special needs attend a center-based program, but across the district more than 900 students do.

The programs are funded by the district and won’t depend on the budget of the individual school where they’re located. Teachers who work at the centers will not need to reapply for their jobs, and students will not have to fill out any new paperwork to attend the same program at a new location.

If families decide they don’t want their child at the location the district picks, families will need to go through the district’s choice process to find a spot elsewhere. The first round ends this week, but a second round process immediately follows.

Another factor for families making a choice  — transportation plans — are also still in the works. Most special needs students get transportation to school, but not always.

Diana Wilson, spokeswoman for Jeffco schools, said the district would like to provide transportation to all students during the first year of their change to a new, possibly farther school, but whether they can afford to will depend on which schools, or how many, the board approves for closure.

For Sadie Steffen, a mom of a 9-year-old who is in a wheelchair and cannot speak, not all schools’ programs are the same.

This year, Steffen moved her son to the program at Peck Elementary after her son had a bad experience at another Jeffco school.

Already this year he’s making progress, she said. She credited the school for including her son in the broader school community, not just segregating him in a center program. Such inclusion is critical for many parents of children with special needs.

“He spends a lot of time in his regular classes,” Steffen said. “He eats lunch in the cafeteria. They don’t believe in just shutting him out.”

Steffen’s son starts each morning walking around the school with the help of a paraprofessional and attached to a device that helps him get around. He has a device with different recordings, and he presses the button that corresponds to the message he wants to give — such as “good morning.” He spends at least one to two hours in a classroom apart from the center, and the rest of the day gets more attention and help from the teacher in the center.

Aimee Beazley, a parent and PTA president at Peck Elementary, said the program also helps students who do not have disabilities.

“Peck really does embrace that diversity and inclusion of everyone,” Beazley said. “For our students, it’s normal to be different.”

Some parents fear that kind of inclusion might not transfer well if the programs are relocated.

“If the school closes, and I’m forced back, I will not,” Steffen said. “I will not let my son regress.”

Other proposed district-wide cuts to services for students’ social and emotional needs could also impact students with special needs who aren’t enrolled in a center program.

In Jeffco, gaps between the achievement of students with disabilities and those without have been larger than the state average, according to state test data.

At third grade, 8.3 percent of students who have disabilities tested proficient or advanced on the state’s reading test in 2015 compared to 46.8 percent of students without disabilities. That’s a gap of 38.5 percentage points, compared to the gap of about 33 percentage points at the state level. This year the state noted that the gap got wider at the state level, but district level data that was released is not disaggregated for different student groups.

The gaps also get wider at higher grade levels.

Jessica Shymkiw, a parent of four special needs students, including two sons at Pleasant View Elementary said she moved to Jeffco from out of state and appreciates that her boys’ problems weren’t brushed off as behavioral problems when they enrolled.

“They were really good at working with them,” Shymkiw said. “The school has been really good at testing them and trying to get them a diagnosis. That kind of thing can be hard to pick up on.”

Shymkiw said the school feels like a family and that might not be easily replicated elsewhere.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers OK up to $100 million to address funding shortage for schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers agreed to dip into reserves to make up a shortfall to get public schools the money they were promised — and they’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve the final plan in House Bill 1001. The bill now heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk.

Rep. Tim Brown, a co-author of the bill and chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it was necessary to take the uncommon step and have the state to use reserve funds to make up the gap, but in the next budget year making up that difference will be a priority. Brown said he, other lawmakers, and the Legislative Services Agency will work to make sure projections are more accurate going forward.

“Do procedures need to be changed?” Brown said. “We’re going to be asking those questions” during the next budget cycle.

Estimates on the size of the shortfall have ranged widely this year, beginning around $9 million and growing as new information and student counts came in. Projections from the Legislative Services Agency reported by the Indianapolis Star had the gap at $22 million this year and almost $60 million next year.

The final bill requires the state to transfer money from reserves if public school enrollment is higher than expected, as well as to make up any shortages for students with disabilities or students pursuing career and technical education. The state budget director would have to sign off first. Transfers from reserves are already allowed if more voucher students enroll in private schools than projected, or if state revenue is less than expected.

The budget shortfall, discovered late last year, resulted from miscalculations in how many students were expected to attend public schools over the next two years. Lawmakers proposed two bills to address the shortfall, and the House made it its highest legislative priority. The compromise bill would set aside up to $25 million for this year and up to $75 million next year. The money would be transferred from reserve funds to the state general fund and then distributed to districts.

The bill also takes into account two other programs that lawmakers think could be contributing to underestimated public school enrollment: virtual education programs and kids who repeat kindergarten.

District-based virtual education programs would be required to report to the state by October of each year on virtual program enrollment, total district enrollment, what grades the virtual students are in, where they live, and how much of their day is spent in a virtual learning program. These programs, unlike virtual charter schools, are not separate schools, so it can be hard for state officials and the public to know they even exist.

The report will help lawmakers understand how the programs are growing and how much they might cost, but it won’t include information about whether students in the programs are learning or graduating. Virtual charter schools in the state have typically posted poor academic results, and Holcomb has called for more information and action, though legislative efforts have failed.

Finally, the bill changes how kindergarteners are counted for state funding. The state changed the cut-off age for kindergarten to 5 years old by Aug. 1 — if students are younger than that, they can still enroll, but the district won’t receive state dollars for them. Some districts were allowing 4-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten early, Sen. Ryan Mishler said earlier this month. Then those same students would enroll in kindergarten again the next year.

Despite increases passed last year to boost the total education budget, many school leaders have said they struggle to pay salaries and maintain buildings, which is why funding shortfalls — even small ones — matter. This year’s unexpected shortfall was particularly problematic because districts had already made plans based on the state budget.

Find all of Chalkbeat’s 2018 legislative coverage here.

let the games begin

Assembly pushes for $1.5 billion boost to education spending

PHOTO: Photo by Jonathan Fickies for UFT
UFT President Michael Mulgrew interviews New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

In a tight budget year, New York State’s Democratic-led Assembly wants to increase education spending by $1.5 billion, officials announced late Monday night.

The proposed increase  which would bring total education spending to $27.1 billion  is significantly more than the governor’s suggested $769 million increase. Still, the amount is a slightly smaller boost than the Assembly backed last year, which is likely a reflection of a difficult fiscal situation faced by the state this year.

State officials are fighting against a budget deficit, a federal tax plan that could harm New York, and the threat of further federal cuts. The potential lack of funding could be the only sticking point in an otherwise quiet budget year for education matters.

As part of its education agenda, the Assembly backed a number of programs it has in the past. The plan supports the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which is designed to help boys and young men of color reach their potential, and “community schools,” which act as service hubs that provide healthcare and afterschool programs.

The release of this plan kicks off the final stretch of the state’s budget process. The governor has already outlined his proposals and the Senate will likely follow soon, setting up the state’s annual last-minute haggling.

The budget is due by April 1, but could always be resolved later similar to last year.