Parents Should Not Be Afraid To Send Their Kids To School

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On Monday, August 8, 2011, the children of Huntsville will report to school for the beginning of a new year. Last year, I had tears in my eyes as my daughter started First Grade and the boy began Kindergarten. It was a rough day emotionally; all those transitions are. But it isn’t going to hold a candle to what we’re facing five days from now.

On Monday, July 25th, Dr. Wardynski told me and others that he didn’t know if the system would be ready on August 8th to educate my son.

Because of decisions made by the former Superintendent, the Board, the Consultants, and yes even our current Superintendent (who has shown us that he knows how to quickly hire someone when he wants to–just not teachers, aides, or therapists), our schools are likely understaffed and unable to meet the requirements of the IEPs.

An understaffed classroom is an unsafe classroom.

__________

Insufficient staffing is the only logical reason why Wardynski could not or would not confirm for me that our schools would be ready to educate my son.

In many ways my son’s IEP is fairly typical. It doesn’t require a specialized setting (other than the resource room that is already available). It doesn’t require specialized technology. It doesn’t require that the school build him a pool even though his language dramatically increases while in one.

His individualized education program requires people to help teach him and the other children in the classroom with him.

For some reason, the superintendent has no problem hiring aides for himself (at $59,211 a year), but hiring aides for the classroom is just too expensive. Hiring a specialist to work with all of our children to improve their ability to communicate is just exorbitant.

All that my son’s IEP requires is two teachers (a special education teacher and a regular education teacher), an aide to help him transition and work, and access to Speech and Occupational therapy.

In other words, the obstacle that Huntsville City Schools is facing in meeting the requirements of my son’s IEP is basically one single aide to assist him when he is in the regular classroom.

You may find this to be exorbitant. (I, unlike Huntsville City Schools, believe that $10,000 is a lot of money.) But honestly, I don’t care. It’s the law.

Ten grand. My son’s education and safety are being put into question because of ten grand.

__________

So how did we get to the precipice we’re facing on August 8th?

As with all roads to hell, I hope that this one began with many good intentions. But I’m doubtful.

Cutting Special Education

This road started on February 10th when the board approved laying off 65 Instructional Assistants. Nearly half of the layoffs that day were cuts to special education.

We traveled further down this road on February 17th when the board cancelled the ONIN Contract. 53% of the staff provided by ONIN were, you guessed it, Instructional Assistants working in special education settings.

Hiring Consultants: Not Teachers/Aides/OTs/STs

But the board was just getting warmed up. Immediately after the firing of aides to work with our children, the board approved the contract for Dr. Ed Richardson at $600.00 a day. The average aide costs the system $53.00 per day. If they were paid Dr. Richardson’s salary, we would be paying them an average of $112,200 a year. We don’t pay them that much. We pay them right around $10,000 a year. Was Dr. Richardson’s advice worth 12 times the committed dedication and love my son received from just one aide last year?

I don’t think so.

But it seems the cuts to special education just weren’t happening fast enough, and the board needed that money to hire a consultant to do their jobs for them. (And provide political cover for unpopular decisions, of course.)

Funny. The board and the superintendents always seem to find money to hire people to help themselves. Helping children seems to be a much lower priority. At least twelve times lower in the case of Dr. Richardson.

After his hiring, things really started taking off.

The Special Needs Consolidation Plan

At some point in March when Ms. Sledge and Dr. Pruitt of the Special Education department in the central office decided (under orders, I’d bet) that it would be a good idea to move all the kids who spend a majority of their time in a resource room (as my son did last year) to the Academy for Academics and Arts.

I’m willing to assume that this plan was conceived with good intentions. I am hopeful that it was made with the best interests of the students in mind, but due to their refusal to actually discuss there plans and intentions, I have no reason to trust them now. If the plan were a good one, they would be thrilled to share it with the parents.

When this plan leaked out in March, special needs parents went to the board meeting on March 16th to find out more about it.

We were told that the plan was just a rumor. (Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.) But then immediately after the plan leaked, many parents were told that their child would be moved out of their home school or their child would not receive services.

Then Ms. Sledge and Dr. Pruitt called for a meeting with special needs parents on April 6th to discuss the consolidation plan. That night, Ms. Sledge claimed that students who lived south of Governors’ Drive would be consolidated at Challenger. Students north of Governors’ Drive would go to AAA.

Special Needs parents are not unreasonable. All we asked was to see a detailed description of the plan and the motivations behind it.

We were told we would have it that week. And I was foolish enough to believe it. To this date, the central office, Dr. Moore, Dr. Robinson, Mr. Birney, Mr. Blair, Mrs. McCaulley, Mrs. Morrison, and finally, Dr. Wardynski have all refused to discuss this plan with parents. I suppose that Dr. Wardynski’s promise to operate in a transparent manner, as he claimed he would on Monday, July 25th, doesn’t apply to consolidating special needs kids.

The simple truth is that they never intended to put the plan in writing. As Sledge said on April 6th, “I don’t want to put it in writing because then you’ll take it to Montgomery to complain about it.”

You see, even then, she was more worried about getting into trouble than serving students. And this is why five days before school starts we still don’t know if IEPs can be met: the leadership of our system, including it seems Dr. Wardynski, is more concerned about getting sued than doing their jobs the right way to begin with.

I suppose they fail to see the irony that if they simply did their jobs, the likelihood that they will be sued is dramatically decreased.

Cutting Special Education Again

On April 21st, the consultant recommended and the board approved firing an additional 36 Special Education personnel. 36 of the 45 Probationary Support Personnel fired that night were special education personnel.

When I asked Dr Richardson about this on June 9th at the School Closing meeting at Grissom High, he stated that “many of those support personnel will be re-hired.”

Somehow he managed to say this with a straight face.

Delayed Hiring for 2011-2012

The first job postings for teachers and aides were posted on the Huntsville City School website on July 14th. Seventeen working days before the first day of school.

They waited so long to start the process of getting ready for the new year that many Special Education Teachers, Aides, Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, and Physical Therapists who had worked in the system for years decided it was time to move on.

The postings, at that time, included exactly one instructional assistant position.

Step by step, the system, the board, the consultants, and the two superintendents have decimated an excellent special needs program to the point where we cannot even know five days before the start of school if the system is in a position to meet our IEPs.

__________

It was completely predictable that we were going to be understaffed and would therefore have safety issues at the start of school.  Every decision made by the central office, the board of education, the consultants they hired, and both of the superintendents who are currently working for Huntsville City Schools has lead us straight to this point.

I’ve asked Dr. Wardynski, via email as I suspect it will be a long time before he agrees to meet with me in person, about this three times since my meeting with him on Monday.

I have written to ask the following:

Dr. Wardynski,

Thank you again for meeting with me on Monday. Have you been able to determine yet if the system will be in a position to meet the IEPs starting on August 8th?

Also, if you are still uncertain about this, what specific and detailed assurances can you offer me as a parent, in an effort to demonstrate your commitment to transparency, that my son’s classroom will be sufficiently staffed to ensure a safe learning environment for him on August 8th?

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Russell

Russell Winn

2501 Glen Echo Circle, SE
Huntsville, AL 35803

On Wednesday, July 27th, at 7:01pm, just seven days before the start of school, I received the following response from Dr. Wardynski:

Mr. Winn:

Student safety is always our first concern and we will provide a safe learning environment for students throughout the district.

Thank you for your note.

Casey Wardynski

While I appreciate hearing from him and the reassurances he is willing to offer me, it should be noted that I did not question the level of concern that Dr. Wardynski or the system has for student safety. I assume that they do not want children to be endangered. If I felt otherwise, both of my children would have long since been removed from this mess. What I questioned was their plan for ensuring that safety. For that question, Dr. Wardynski has offered not one single detail.

Dr. Wardynski, in three weeks, has adopted the Huntsville City Schools policy of refusing to discuss its plans for our children with parents.

If the system, or the Board, or the consultant, or either of the Superintendents (since Dr. Moore is getting paid $99,000 to sit at home, perhaps she could write some of these things down) had wanted to avoid this situation, they could have done so easily. All it would have taken was putting the special needs consolidation plan in writing in April when they told us they would.

If they had, I wouldn’t have to worry about the safety of my son come August 8th. If Dr. Wardynski had shared this consolidation plan with us on Monday, July 25th, as I was told he would do, again I likely wouldn’t have to worry about my son’s safety on August 8th.

Instead, because of a complete lack of transparency, we’re five days away and I’m terrified.

Parents should not be afraid to send their kids to school.

 
Russell
"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.

4 Comments

  1. “All it would have taken was putting the special needs consolidation plan in writing in April when they told us they would.” Or May. Or June. Or July.

    As Sledge said on April 6th, “I don’t want to put it in writing because then you’ll take it to Montgomery to complain about it.” Classic, simply classic — like some simple minded toddler telling Mama he can’t say what he did ’cause then he’d get in trouble. This isn’t terribly reassuring, is it?

  2. Special education has clearly been a target, but the general incompetence in getting ready for this school year has affected all. As of a week ago, at Monte Sano, we didn’t even have teachers for seveal grades! Although they still won’t tell us the names, we apparently do have teachers now… we think.

    I find it unbelievable that several of the teachers also switched grades within the past two weeks! How the heck are you supposed to prepare in less than two weeks?

    1. Thanks for the heads up Brian. I suspected that was the case with the significant delay in even getting started in hiring this year. Thanks for confirming it. I agree; this is a system-wide problem.

      Concerning switching grades: Come on you know that teachers are actually superhuman, do you? It’s nothing for them to switch grades even minutes before they need to enter a classroom and start teaching.

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