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Special ed classes staying put

The superintendent decides that 26,000 special education students and their teachers will remain in their current schools.

By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2002

The superintendent decides that 26,000 special education students and their teachers will remain in their current schools.

Concluding it would be impossible to satisfy the concerns of parents and teachers, Pinellas schools superintendent Howard Hinesley has killed a plan to relocate special education programs this fall.

As a result, the 26,000 special education students and their teachers will remain in their current schools. The only adjustments that will be made this fall will be the routine annual relocations of a small number of students.

In a memo sent Thursday to principals and teachers, special education administrators said they want help from parents and teachers in crafting a new proposal for how special education students, including gifted students, will be redistributed to more schools after 2002-03. The relocation will coincide with the district's choice plan, and an existing advisory committee will take up the issue next week.

The plan to relocate dozens of special education programs that Hinesley shelved was aimed at redistributing those programs in the fall as parents began choosing the schools they want their children to attend. District officials said they wanted to spread out programs, both to give parents more choice and to keep schools from being identified by their special education population.

But the district did not seek input from teachers or parents, who started learning about the plan last month. They were angry that they were not involved and that the special education changes were to begin this fall, a year before choice.

Parents and teachers bombarded School Board members and district administrators with questions and concerns. They worried about whether buildings would be accessible and whether new schools would accept their kids. They pointed out that schools wouldn't have full-time nurses or therapy services.

"I don't believe we anticipated the depth of the concerns expressed by teachers and parents," said Jan Rouse, the assistant superintendent for special education. "It's a back-handed compliment that people are so pleased with the current programs and services their kids are getting that any change is not going to be viewed positively."

Yet district administrators stood by the plan until Tuesday's School Board meeting, when they heard from 30 more tearful, frustrated parents.

Parents said they were surprised and impressed that Hinesley and his staff were willing to make such a dramatic turnaround. Thursday's announcement on special education came one day after Hinesley had another change of heart, deciding to reinstate John Nicely as principal at Tarpon Springs High School.

"It was so refreshing. You don't usually see things like this happen," said Stacey Solar, whose son Jacob is a third-grader in Walsingham Elementary School's special education program. "I'm really happy for our kids."

Solar, who had spoken against the relocation plans at two School Board meetings, called Rouse Thursday to thank her.

Rouse said the district will seek input beyond the advisory committee. During choice, the district will be divided into attendance areas. She hopes, at some point, to hold focus groups in each attendance area.

"Big relief," said Terri Ossenberg, who teaches autistic students at Osceola Middle School. "We would like to be a part of that process so that we can give input as to where the downfalls might be."

School Board member Linda Lerner, who had questioned the original plan, was thrilled that the memo made clear the plan would not be resurrected.

"I would have liked it to happen sooner," Lerner said. "I think there was enough information two weeks ago."

Dayna Nichols' son is a student at Osceola High School, where he is accepted and holds a job in the office. She's pleased that even if his program for autistic students is relocated in a year, she will have time to prepare him.

"If this has opened the doors for more communication between parents and teachers and policymakers, this is a win-win situation," said Nichols, a teacher at Tyrone Elementary School. "They really listened."

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