Superintendent takes in issues with autism
The school district leader listens as members of Concerned Parents of Autistic Children share school woes.
By ERIKA VIDAL
Published November 4, 2005
When her daughter Sydney was 3, Kathy Swenson enrolled her in prekindergarten at a Hillsborough County school. But Sydney wasn't getting the services that Swenson thought were crucial to her development.
"I wasted three years of Sydney's life," she said as she stood in front of more than 40 people, including two state representatives and Hillsborough's new school superintendent. "We want a partnership, not a pity party."
Nearly every person inside Nature's Health Foods in Valrico on Sunday afternoon was the parent of an autistic child. That's where Concerned Parents of Autistic Children members meet each month to share their concerns, often described as "horror stories," about their experiences with the school district. That's where they go to fight for their kids.
MaryEllen Elia, four months into her role as the new superintendent, sat in the middle of the room surrounded by parents, with a notebook open in front of her, legs crossed, pen in hand.
She would be hearing much of this for the first time. She said she was there to listen so she can examine the situation and see what the county can do better. As the mother of a blind child, she told the group, "I've had my share of difficult experiences."
Swenson has started a school for autistic children, Sydney's School for Autism, and she wants the county to help fund it. They need a building, she said, and more teachers.
"Instead of fighting me, embrace me, because I can take you where you need to go in one year instead of five," she said.
She is running the school from inside Great Beginnings Pre-School in South Tampa.
Swenson said she shouldn't have had to spend two years of her life and $40,000 of her own money to get what her child needs. Not when there's a federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Act, that says she is already entitled to those services.
Many parents said they think their children are being denied crucial services such as occupational therapy because the School Board can't seem to get enough certified teachers. That's because teachers can earn more money in schools elsewhere, Elia said.
However, Elia said, the district has started looking at other counties across the nation to see what they are doing to keep their teachers.
Meanwhile, parents say they're left to fight the school system until they get what their child needs.
Elia said her first course of action will be to talk about the situation with members of her staff.
"There are some situations you have told me about today that should not have occurred," she said. "We have a lot to learn."
[Last modified November 3, 2005, 08:48:08]
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