Special Kids, Special Needs 

In the wake of school closures, Missoula’s special–needs children try to adjust

The closing of Emma Dickinson School in Missoula moved more than 200 children into other schools. Among those young Missoulians was a small group of special-needs students who were impacted more deeply than the others. And their parents responded, going to bat to ensure high-quality education for their children.

“I’m the ‘teary-eyed mom’ at all the school board meetings,” says Melody Barnes, mother of a special-needs daughter. “It’s not easy to talk about this without getting emotional.”

“I’m a fighter and sometimes I even overreact,” admits Kim Sloat, mother of a special-needs son. “But if we don’t speak up for our children, no one does.”

The two K-5 classes of special education teachers Jana Monser and Robert Risely were moved to the Hawthorne School on South Third Street last fall—a result of the highly contested closure of two schools ordered by the Missoula County School Board in spring 1999—taking with them most of the students who had been in those classes at Dickinson.

The school district made major efforts to smooth the transition. In May, before school let out, students were bussed to their future schools to tour their new classrooms and meet their new teachers. Parents were invited along. In the case of the special-needs children, that initial introduction was not a success.

“I felt sorry for [Hawthorne School principal] Steve McHugh,” Barnes remembers of that initial meeting. “That was the most appalled-looking bunch of parents. We were pretty upset.”

In addition to changing schools and joining a new peer group, the children were moving into a much smaller space—one former kindergarten room instead of the two larger, more familiar rooms they had utilized at Dickinson.

“We couldn’t imagine how they could teach all these highly distractible kids in this tiny space,” Barnes says.

Barnes and her husband, Eric Sells, had been highly vocal opponents of the closure of the Roosevelt and Emma Dickinson schools. They fought to keep Dickinson open, joining other parents in a lawsuit that sought to prevent the closures and were “devastated” when the injunction was denied in district court.

“If you have a special-needs kid, you spend your whole life advocating for her,” Barnes explains. “The Emma Dickinson program really worked. Everyone at the school had a great deal of respect for them.”

“I just want my son to be happy and have what other children have,” agrees Sloat. “I believe the school district must learn to treat him and the others with the love and respect they need.”

Sloat had visited every primary school in the Missoula School system, reviewing the resource programs before placing her son Jeffrey at Emma Dickinson’s preschool when he was four years old. Sloat calls the school environment “crucial” to his future development.

“Dickinson was perfect, and now we are dealing with the fallout of the closures,” Sloat says. “I’m a parent who tends to get very emotional about this because I want what is best for my child. There is a terrible fear that our children will be locked away and forgotten.”

The Kids

Jeffrey is the second special-needs child Sloat has adopted. Her older adopted daughter suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and her problems were difficult to pinpoint. Sloat had to fight to get help for Nicole.

When Jeffrey came to her as a foster child he was a year old, weighed 17 pounds and spent most of his time curled in a fetal position. Doctors believed he was totally blind. He would not allow himself to be held or cuddled and had repeated attacks of “night terrors,” during which he would scream for hours. Attempts to touch or calm him made it worse. The diagnosis was repeated brain trauma, estimated to have started when Jeffrey was about three months old.

“A psychiatrist told me that when the abuse started, Jeffrey went into a room in his head and shut the door,” Sloat says. “It took us years to open that door again.”

When Jeffrey was three, his biological parents’ rights were terminated and Sloat adopted him the following year. Today, after what she describes as years of “incredible cooperation and help” from his therapists and teachers, Jeffrey is a far different child. Now, like most active eight-year-olds he charges through life at a run, not letting his disabilities slow him down. He talks nonstop and works with a speech therapist to overcome his speech impediment.

“They said he would never walk, never talk, never learn—but he does,” Sloat says with parental pride. “The word most people use with him is ‘enchanting’—he puts everyone under his spell.”

Sloat doesn’t know what the future has in store for Jeffrey, but she is already investigating colleges for students who suffer from similar symptoms. One teacher suggested she should also look realistically at other options, in case Jeffrey reaches a learning plateau that doesn’t allow extended education. Sloat is willing to agree that may happen. But she isn’t willing to give up hope or see Jeffrey denied any chance to continue learning.

“The reason I worry so much is that it has taken so long to make him the child he is now,” Sloat explains. “He didn’t laugh aloud until he was almost five years old. Now he tells jokes—is full of joy. I don’t want him to go back into that dark place.”

Barnes has the same concerns for her seven-year-old daughter Madeleine, who has multiple neurological problems. Madeleine suffered severe influenza and possible encephalitis when she was just a month old. The illnesses affected the neuron centers of her brain. Electrical impulses misfire rapidly all the time, sending conflicting orders and information. Madeleine has seizures, and her abilities to balance and learn are affected. At times she has impulse problems and temper tantrums.

Madeleine has been to five neurologists in her short life. She has been tested hundreds of times. Her parents have tried many therapies to help her live a more normal life. She is on a gluten-free diet, recommended by a naturopath, that has helped greatly, Barnes says. Calmness and consistency are vital to Madeleine’s emotional well-being.

“The Emma Dickinson programs really worked for her,” Barnes says. “Not knowing what would happen was very hard. It put us in an adversarial role with the school administration.”

The Needs

Both Madeleine and Jeffrey have had problems adjusting to the new school and the crowded classrooms. A wall was erected in the classroom, dividing the area used by the kindergarten-through-second-graders from the area for the third-through-fifth-grade students. On one side of the wall, two teachers and a varying number of aides work with 13 students; on the other side two teachers and multiple aides work with nine students.

Jeffrey’s behavior suffered after the move to Hawthorne, Sloat says, with more frequent frustration “meltdowns” and tantrums. He moves quickly but doesn’t see well, so he often bumps into tables and equipment in the room. He is frequently bruised. When he hits a wall or another child, it upsets him and he responds by acting out his feelings.

Madeleine’s response was similar, according to her mother. Madeleine is extremely social and easily distracted. “It was easy to see she was agitated in the evenings after school,” Barnes says. “Constancy is a huge factor with special needs kids.”

Unlike many parents of special-needs children, Barnes and Sells are not opposed to Madeleine spending most of her time in the special-needs classroom. “Mainstreaming”—spending some classes with regular education students—has not been successful for their daughter.

“She needs to be at a slower pace and calmer environment of her own classroom,” Barnes said. “She is easily over-stimulated. The crowding in the Hawthorne classroom has not been good for her.”

But the concerns of the parents and the needs of the children are not being ignored. Shortly before Christmas, Hawthorne principal Steve McHugh and district special education coordinators met with parents, listened to their concerns and have responded.

“We have less than ideal space for a special-needs classroom,” McHugh admits. “Space is an issue—the rest is not. Hawthorne is a very warm and inviting school and we feel good about having the special-needs children here.”

In the 1998-99 school year, Hawthorne School had 225 students and Emma Dickinson had about 125. Hawthorne has about 44,000 square feet of floor space and Dickinson had 38,000 square feet. The size of Hawthorne was one factor that kept it open when Dickinson closed. However, this year the enrollment at Hawthorne is 378 students. But, it is a number that McHugh feels the school handles well.

“We’re a better school than last year,” McHugh says. “We have a larger staff and two or more classes at each grade level which allows our teachers to team-teach. This is a beautiful facility. It has great space and an excellent playground.”

McHugh believes the school has assimilated the special-needs classes well. “I can’t be happier with the way it’s gone,” McHugh says. “I really believe having the extended-resource classes bring wholeness to a school. Special-needs students learn from regular education students and vice versa. We like having the program here.”

One regular education first-grade teacher spends part of her day teaching the special-needs first-grade students who mix well with her regular education students, McHugh says.

Space for the classroom was difficult to find, but changes are being made. The dividing wall was built in response to parental concerns. Cabinets to hold teaching materials and needed equipment are being built in an adjoining hallway and collapsible tables have been ordered to maximize use of the space that is available. A safety rail is being installed on a ramp which the children must travel as they go to and from the gymnasium.

“Steve McHugh has been very gracious,” Barnes acknowledges. “The parents were very strong in voicing their children’s needs and they are trying hard to accommodate us. But these things happened because we spoke up.”

“The changes are a direct response to parental concerns,” Sloat says. “It must have been difficult for [Steve McHugh] to have the special-needs parents coming in. We all fear that our children are going to be treated badly or ignored. I can’t risk Jeffrey being damaged.”

McHugh and the parents are united in praise for the extended-resource classroom teachers, who continue to do an excellent job with the students, despite the reduced space and added distractions.

“The staff is wonderful,” Sloat praises. “When Robert [Risley] first met Jeffrey, he got down on the floor—on his level—and made an immediate connection with him. They do an awesome job, but the crowding is stressful for them too.”

The Lesson?

The parents are concerned about what will happen to their children in the future. Two schools already have closed because of the district-wide drop in enrollment. In the past few years, the Missoula County Public Schools has lost 900 pupils. Financial considerations led to the closures of Roosevelt and Emma Dickinson last spring.

McHugh hopes enrollment has leveled out now, but the school board and district administrators must wait to see what happens next. The Jan. 3 enrollment figure for the elementary schools is 3,518 students, a gain of 18 from the 3,500 students in kindergarten through third grade in January 1999. The middle school has 1,862 students, 66 fewer than the January 1999 total of 1,928. The high schools have 3,874 students, up 84 from January 1999’s number of 3,790.

Funding for each year is based on the average number of students in the schools from the previous year. When numbers increase or decrease rapidly, the school systems struggle to balance budgets and provide services.

“When we lose 66 middle school students, you can’t solve the problem by just cutting out two classrooms,” McHugh says. “The losses are never spread evenly over age groups. We have to get really inventive.”

In the same time, the number of special education students in the district remains slightly higher than the state and national averages. About 11 to 12.5 percent of all district students receive some special education services, according to Barbara Evans, one of the district’s three special education coordinators. The national average is between 8 and 10 percent, she adds.

“We get calls every week from people relocating to Missoula who want to know what special education programs are available here,” Evans explains. “Because we are a good-sized city with multiple services, I think we attract people whose children have needs we can help fill.”

About $1.2 million of the district’s $22 million budget goes to special education programs. Evans says 39.5 certified teachers, 8 psychologists, 15.5 therapists, a full-time social worker and about 80 aides work with special education students across the district. This includes children who need full-time, extended-resource classrooms and children who may only receive help in one area for a single class period a day.

Evans understands the concerns of the parents whose children were displaced from the Emma Dickinson school and says the district is doing everything it can to help and reassure the parents while providing quality services to the children.

“Our commitment is to keep things as stable as possible,” Evans said. “We have had a lot of meetings with parents—during the day, after school, in the evenings. We try to listen to their concerns.”

Sloat, Barnes and other parents whose children attend Hawthorne hope that the special-needs classes will receive more space next year and won’t be moved again to another school.

“Even with the changes, the classrooms are too small. They will have to do something different,” Barnes says. “We hope they will keep the children at Hawthorne. The trust in all these relationships is critical. After the Emma Dickinson decision, we have to learn to work together and trust each other again. We have to come to terms with what we lost. Last year was a hard year in the district. There has to be a lot of healing.”

“For some of these children it’s going to take all 18 years for them to learn basic life skills,” Sloat says. “They need the best possible environment for learning.”

McHugh says he will work to retain the programs at Hawthorne, but the final decision will rest with the district administration and the school board.

“The worry down the road is what will happen next fall,” Barnes says. “We just hope there won’t be another move.”

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