Thursday, December 24, 2009

Why Dr. Weast's Plan is Wrong for Our County and Wrong for Our Children

I have posted a memo from Superintendent Jerry Weast to the members of the Board of Education, trying to justify his proposal to displace preschoolers with special needs from a school that has been effectively serving children and families for 50 years. I intentionally reprinted his entire letter, to give him an opportunity to share his position, unfiltered, to people like you who care about this issue. Now that I've done that, I'd like to react to some of his claims.

WHAT HE SAYS:
The district will spend "no additional dollars." The recommendation is "budget-neutral for the next fiscal year." The plan "may be more cost-effective, but that was not a deciding factor in making this educational decision."

WHAT THIS MEANS:
We all know states and counties are facing budget challenges, and if Dr. Weast came out and said budget cuts are forcing him to eliminate good programs for children with special needs and reduce the quality and intensity of early-intervention programs for young children, that would be sad but a fact we'd need to address. But if this is NOT a cost-savings measure, why is he trying to force through a radical change to the way children are served as a small item in the budget? This is the wrong time and the wrong way to make such a major change that will affect so many children.

WHAT HE SAYS:
"MPAC has been − and remains − a valued partner with MCPS, and we believe that program has served our children well."

WHAT THIS MEANS:
In partnership with MPAC, the county is effectively meeting the needs of preschool children who require intensive early intervention. If he truly values MPAC and its leadership, why is he trying to force through this change without consulting with them? After providing these services for 50 years, and partnering with the county for 30 years, MPAC has the expertise, commitment, and resources to further improve services for our county's children. But the larger point is, if it's not broke (as Dr. Weast acknowledges), why fix it? Or, in this case, possibly break it?

WHAT HE SAYS:
"MPAC is concerned about the prospect that there could be fewer referrals to their program and they have engaged their stakeholders in an effort to aggressively advocate against the creation of a public option for our families." [emphasis added]

WHAT HE MEANS:
Dr. Weast is feeling the pressure from parents whose children will be affected by this plan, and he's trying to tell board members that this is just a lobbying campaign orchestrated by MPAC. He's wrong. MPAC officials are not professional advocates, lobbyists, lawyers, bloggers, or communicators. They teach and they dedicate their lives to supporting children who need extra help. From what I've heard, they are spending a lot of time these days answering questions from concerned parents --"What will this mean for my child?" "Does this mean MPAC won't be here for other children?" "Who's making this decision, and what can I do?" If Dr. Weast thinks it's inappropriate for MPAC to answer those questions from the people they serve, he couldn't be more wrong. And for the record, I am a board member of the Arc of Montgomery County, which I have mentioned before, but I care about this proposal as a parent of a child who attended MPAC for three years and received exceptional instruction that I couldn't have found anywhere else, public or private. No one has told me what to say, how to say it, or who to say it to. I'm looking forward to testifying at the board hearing on Jan. 13, and I'm sure I'll be joined by many parents who are just as passionate as me about preserving special needs programs that work.

WHAT HE SAYS:
Parents will be better off with schools closer to their homes, instead of going to MPAC in either Silver Spring or Gaithersburg.

WHAT THIS MEANS:
Dr. Weast is taking a "one-size-fits-all" approach with this point, saying that proximity equals better education. That's a stretch. Here's a question for parents (whether or not your child has special needs) -- would you rather send your child to the closest school or the best, most appropriate school for your child? Well, when your child has special needs, that choice is even more important. Making the wrong decision or the wrong placement when your child is 3 is pretty risky, considering his or her brain is still developing, and researchers know more clearly than ever how important those early years are in a child's development.

WHAT HE SAYS:
This is about choice, and letting children attend preschool close to their homes.

WHAT THIS MEANS:
Where is the choice in eliminating a proven program that parents passionately support? Are current MPAC parents demanding public options closer to their homes? If they're happy with the program, I doubt it. Maybe in introducing this program in February, parents could be given a choice. The conversation may go something like this: "We know your child needs special services because of his or her delays/disability. We'll give you a choice. The first option is a program that has been effective for 50 years, with specialized teachers, therapists, and facilities, all in one building. You can talk to parents whose children have attended, to see if you think it might be a good fit for your child. The second option is a new preschool program the county is starting this year, and your child will go to a nearby elementary school. We've never done this before for children this age, and no teachers have been hired yet, and no training has been identified, but your child will be closer to home, and we're hopeful it will be a good program."

Yes, let's provide choice. Dr. Weast and the Board of Education should be MPAC's biggest champions, and more families (or at least the same number of families) should be able to choose to send their children to MPAC for the most specialized, intensive early intervention. Look into ways to expand preschool services for children in Montgomery County, but don't do anything that would threaten the viability of MPAC to provide the same level of service it has for 50 years.
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