Life lessons 

Special education needs needle parents

Missoula's school district copes with budgetary contraints

Coming on the heels of summer, back-to-school time can be hard on kids and parents.

When Missoula's 10,000 or so students stream into the public school system at the end of the month, it'll mean sharp adjustments for families across the valley. And, according to some parents of the 1,000 or so kids with physical, emotional or developmental disabilities enrolled in the Missoula County Public School's special ed program, this autumn's return to the classroom brings serious stress.

With their children facing obstacles ranging from deafness to severe learning disabilities, these parents fear the district isn't doing all it could to ensure the quality of instruction. In particular, parents complain that school officials are intent on steering their children to "target schools" and away from nearby neighborhood schools-where they say their children will have healthier experiences.

Concerned parents worry the use of target schools will make it hard for kids who already face significant barriers to make a place for themselves. The fact that these children must leave their home neighborhoods, and sometimes their sibilings, can mean increased anxiety and emotional difficulty for them.

That, in turn, hurts the kids' educational chances in a system which, administrators note, already has to tailor its curriculum to be of use to them.

"Special needs kids are the group who handle change the least well," says Virginia DeLand, who has a daughter in the special ed system. "They tend to be people without a lot of social skills, so once they have a group who understands them and how they communicate, it can take a year or more to adapt to a whole new group of people."

And at least one area doctor claims it adds up to segregation."They dance all over the line," says Phil Mattheis, a pediatrician who has worked with Missoula families and has a son in Florence's special ed program. "It's not so much their ability to provide these services in the neighborhood schools as it is their willingness," he says.

"The district has tried repeatedly to devise a system of target schools, each of which cater to a different disability," Mattheis continues. "The problem with this is, it treats kids with disabilities differently than other kids."

District officials say they're doing the best they can.

In Missoula, overall enrollment-and thus, school budgets-has been shrinking, while special education enrollment remains basically the same. Specialists, meanwhile, insist that keeping kids in neighborhood schools is a top priority, but say it sometimes doesn't make sense when it comes to addressing specific needs.

Deaf students, for example, go to Cold Springs Elementary where the sole deaf ed teacher holds class.

"We try to have kids in their home classrooms and their home schools," says Mike Fredrickson, lead coordinator of MCPS special ed. "It's cheaper and we try to do it that way whenever possible. But we don't have the money to provide all the services some kids need in that setting."

Fredrickson says that, just as the approximately $6 million it takes to run the system comes from a patchwork of sources-state and federal grants, and the like-special ed's budget problems stem from a variety of factors. "Even though special ed remains stable, the cost of stuff continues to go up," he says.

"That includes salaries, materials, everything. Plus, Missoula is sort of an epicenter of diversity.

"We have a number of intensive group homes, which cater to kids who have really significant problems, difficulties which can't be dealt with in their homes." Such children, who need lots of time and special attention, Fredrickson says, may need to go to a specific school.

To district officials, this seems to be common sense, but to some parents-including the small, informal support group that DeLand is a part of-it can pose a traumatic challenge.

Social concerns such as those voiced by Mattheis-the worry that, separated from siblings and longtime acquaintances, handicapped kids will have a harder time making friends-outweigh academics in conversations with parents. These parents crave the sort of experiences pre-school kids, disabled and otherwise, can get at Co-Teach, a two-decade-old program run by the University of Montana to prepare "special needs" kids for kindergarten.

"What we find is that the kids learn best in an atmosphere in which they're exposed to other kids with special needs and to typically developing kids," says Stacia Jepson, an instructor at Co-Teach.

Jepson's classes, which start about the same time big-kids school swings into fall session, mix roughly equal numbers of disabled and non-disabled kids. In a colorful, wide-open classroom decorated with bright learning posters, Jepson says the experience provides growth for all manner of children.

"All the kids have really individual needs, but everyone who's been placed here has shown some development," she says. "Even the typically developing kids grow socially and emotionally."

The fact that MCPS contracts with Co-Teach indicates as well as anything that local administrators see the value of early childhood development. Fredrickson certainly acknowledges that social outlets are vital for kids disabled and otherwise, and he stresses his view that financial realities underlie philosophical differences between the district and some parents.

In the end, he says the district does of good job of meeting the legal requirement to provide the least restrictive atmosphere possible for kids. "Our philosophy is to keep kids in neighborhood schools as much as possible," he says.

Stacia Jepson holds down the fort at Co-Teach, a UM program catering to disabled and "typically developing" pre-scholers. Photo by Lise Thompson.


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