Schools plan for students with autism drawing fire
Regina Hodges’ son has grown up with the same children and classmates since kindergarten even though he is autistic. His peers high-five him as he walks through his middle school’s hallways.
But Hodges is worried that a proposed program for students with autism in secondary education could impact her son.
The Hanover school division hopes to bus some severely autistic secondary education students — a classification that applies to Hodge’s son — to one building in the county by next school year. School division officials said the plan would give those students more support and resources.
Hodges said she found out this week that the new program would apply to her eighth grader, who is supposed to attend his home high school, Atlee, next year.
She’s concerned that moving him to a different school with students and a building that he’s unfamiliar with will affect him.
“Who’s going to high-five him in the hallway?” Hodges said during a public hearing at a Jan. 23 school board meeting.
But according to documents from the division, the change should only apply 10 or fewer Hanover students at this moment.
“We’re taking that student [with severe or moderate autism] and would provide better services for [them] in a centralized location,” said Dr. Daryl Chesley, assistant superintendent of instruction.
Division officials have contacted those families who would be impacted by this plan, Chesley said.
The secondary education model will also address the growth of the population of students with autism in grades K-12.
“We’ve seen over the last 10 years an incredible growth in the number of students with autism that we’re serving,” Chesley said.
The number of students with autism across the division has increased from 70 roughly six or seven years ago, to about 300 pupils as of today, said Linda Scarborough, communication specialist.
The reason is because more families with younger kids with autism moved into the division and Chesley said some of those students are now reaching the secondary education level.
“This is just a natural progression of our programming as our student population ages and grows,” Chesley said. “So, there’s never one easy straight answer.”
A few speakers at the Jan. 23 school board public hearing thought there were other reasons behind the division’s decision to continue the existing program to local high schools and middle schools.
“It’s obviously based on a budgetary issue,” said Hamilton Holloway, president of Hanover Arc, at the board meeting.
But, in a recent interview, Chesley said that is not true.
“When you’re living and serving in the world of special education, finances cannot be part of the equation,” Chesley said.
For the parents and their team of special education advisors who may not think this is the best option for their student, the alternative would be for their children, to pursue an “out of division” placement, at a private day program such as the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism in Richmond.
Chesley said about 20 students in the division attend outside programs, some in Hanover, some outside the county and some as far away as Charlottesville.
“It’s to the point when we can no longer safely provide instruction at this level of support,” Chesley said.
Then a discussion takes place between the family and experts to decide the next step.
But Hanover schools still pay for the transportation, whether it’s a bus or a car with a school-employed driver.
The idea of programming for high school and middle school students with severe autism at one county school is not new; the division was considering it last year around this time, but officials had to ensure all parts of the proposal were ready to go before it was “set in stone,” Chesley said.
There is also a similar plan in place at the elementary level. There are programs at about eight schools in the county including South Anna, Battlefield Park and Kersey Creek elementary schools. The number and location of elementary level “centers” in the county is determined by the need, Chesley said.
And he said the division has not received any complaints regarding that program.
However, one parent Allison Thurman who has a child in the program said the experience has been “mixed” so far. Thurman’s 8-year-old son is in first grade and attends a school outside of his designated zone. She said he spends a third of the instruction day in a classroom with his general education peers and the rest of the day in a room with other students with moderate or severe autism.
Thurman said she feels there is “a gap” in inclusion. She has researched the impacts of inclusion for children with autism and found that with proper support, it can guide the way for the “best outcome” for students.
“We’re on the journey for my son [to have] true inclusion,” she said.
Currently the Thurmans are working with their team of special education experts and teachers to create a curriculum to help attain this goal.
“[We want] to achieve a sense of belonging instead of [him] being a visitor,” Thurman said.