Long-term future of Dennis-Yarmouth special ed program uncertain

Industry | June 27, 2016

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A highly regarded program for students with autism spectrum disorders and other special needs will continue at Mattacheese Middle School for at least another year, thanks to impassioned appeals by district parents.

Glenn Martin appeared at last Monday’s meeting of the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District to urge the continued use of the New England Center for Children’s Partner Program, after learning the district planned to scale back its affiliation with NECC. Martin spoke eloquently about his daughter’s progress under the Partner Program, and her struggles in the district before the program began.

According to NECC’s website, “The Partner Program enables districts to provide a level of service similar to that found in out-of-district placements, while allowing students to be included in their community schools.” The program includes participation by a full-time specialist in autism education, weekly consultation by a board-certified behavior analyst, professional development for district staff, and use of the group’s Autism Curriculum Encyclopedia.

The district has used the program for the past three years, but informed parents it would be scaling back its involvement with NECC to include only the use of the ACE beginning next year, a move that would require either existing or new district staff to take over the responsibilities of the lead teacher and behavior analyst. The district reversed itself shortly after that meeting, deciding to keep the full program in place for one more year. But the fate of the program following the 2016-17 school year is unclear.

“Superintendent [Carol Woodbury] and Director of Pupil Services [Jaime Curley] have committed to involving the parents in the upcoming discussions over the next year, which will include transition to the high school, as well as changes to the program as it is currently comprised,” said Martin in an email. “Obviously, in a perfect world, everybody everywhere would have access to everything that they need, every time. Unfortunately, we do not live in such a world, but what we can do is open dialogues, evaluate what we have and what our possibilities are, and come to an agreement on curriculum that is acceptable for everyone.”

The program began at Wixon School three years ago and moved to Mattacheese along with the initial participants. Martin said that while he’s glad the program will continue when his daughter and her fellow participants move on to the high school next school year, thought should also be given to younger students with special needs.

“We are also thinking past her class to the others who will follow her through the district,” Martin said. “If we can hammer out the framework for a high quality, sustainable, consistently fundable program that can be spread and applied throughout the district so the new students can enjoy the same sort of results that we have over the past three years, then maybe those families do not have to go through the experience that we had before NECC was hired on.”

Jessica Krupp, a Dennis resident whose son Robert Evans attends the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, said the NECC program would have made the D-Y district an attractive option if it had been in place years ago. “Children who are blind and children who are autistic have some of the same styles of learning,” she said. “I would have probably pushed for him to be part of that program.”

Krupp argued that that would still be the case for parents trying to determine where special-needs children would be best served in the competitive environment engendered by school choice. “My feeling is they should bump up the program and use it for school choice,” she said. “If they promote that program, more parents would be using D-Y for school choice, and then that would generate money to continue the program.”

“When renewal comes up, what they want to do is hire a teacher and have them work alongside the NECC teacher until August, then have them run the program,” Krupp said. “I’m glad that they are continuing it for a year. I’d like to see them think more about the qualifications of the teachers and not just train them for six months, where NECC teachers are trained for five years.”

Krupp added that the district had taken some positive steps, but would still be unable to operate the ACE as effectively as NECC itself. “They hired their own BCBA, which is good, but that BCBA is going to have a heavy caseload, because they’re going to be going from school to school in the district,” she said. “It’s not going to be the same quality of services.”

“DYRSD has excellent music programs, sports programs, and academic programs,” said Martin. “I believe we can achieve the same level of excellence with the special education programs. We can make D-Y a district where parents are proud to send their special needs children, and make it more attractive to those parents who are forced to exercise school choice and are coming in from other districts.”