Thursday, January 28, 2010

With Budget Vote 2 Weeks Away, County Starts Staffing Unapproved, Undefined Program

Here's an interesting (and disappointing) development with the Montgomery County scheme to shift preschoolers with special needs to a new experimental program in public elementary schools. I call it a "scheme" because emerging details suggest that the public hearings, meetings with board members, and letters and phone calls from parents may not have really mattered -- because the county is moving forward with the implementation of this program BEFORE IT HAS BEEN APPROVED.

Yes, as we await the Board of Education's Feb. 9 vote on the FY2011 budget, which includes this proposed plan, the county has hired the first teacher for the program. She started working on Tuesday. That's according to a parent who talked directly to Felicia Piacente, the director of the Division of Prekindergarten Special Programs and Related Services.

Specifically, a parent spoke with Ms. Piacente about her child, who is scheduled to transition from Infants & Toddlers to special education preschool in March. As part of the transition process, the parents and the service coordinator from Infants & Toddlers visited several programs and determined that the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center (MPAC) was the appropriate placement. But before the IEP meeting, the parents learned of Superintendent Jerry Weast's plan to eliminate funding for MPAC. The parents are struggling to find any information they can about the new preschool program, but Ms. Piacente informed them that the program does not yet have a name, schedule, or classroom they can visit.

In addition, Ms. Piacente told this parent that the teacher for the new preschool class at Cashell Elementary School started on Tuesday. No paraprofessionals have been hired, and they won't be until the program has students. The teachers and pareprofessionals will receive no program-specific training.

Is anyone else outraged? Email if you value parent involvement, support appropriate education for all student, and expect transparency and honesty from your elected officials.

Politics vs. Progress: Will Board Rubber-Stamp Plan Threatening Special-Needs Preschoolers?

On Feb. 9, the Board of Education in Montgomery County, Md., will either 1) support proven educational programs for preschoolers with special needs or 2) give in to political pressure at these children's expense. One parent has submitted this compelling case to the Board. Will they listen?

Why You Should Vote NO on the Proposal to Realign Non-Public Preschool Tuition (P. 20 of budget proposal)

It will not improve LRE. The children currently placed at MPAC already have interaction with typically developing same age peers. Three of the newly-proposed Pre-K community-based classrooms do not have access to same age peers at all. The other three have access to same age peers who are at risk and may not be able to model age level skills.

It will undermine FAPE. In determining the least restrictive environment for an individual child, you must consider FAPE, which means children must receive services that are both developmentally sound and based on the individual needs of each child. Most young children with significant cognitive disabilities require intense, holistic, early-intervention in order to improve their outcomes. Placing these children in an unproven, public, pre-K program in an elementary school is not developmentally sound. Moreover, the proposed program is less intense and less holistic than the services MPAC currently provides. Unless MPAC is preserved as an option, the proposed initiative fails to consider the individual needs of each child.

Existing programs can address the needs. If the goal is to serve children with significant cognitive disabilities closer to home, MCPS should use work to make the existing PEP classes appropriate for more of these children. Any child for whom PEP is not appropriate should still have the opportunity to go to MPAC.

It will eliminate MPAC. The practical reality is that if MCPS realigns funding to create new, public, pre-K special education programs and stops funding placements at MPAC, MPAC will not be able to remain in operation. It will cease to exist – thus eliminating for certain children with severe cognitive disabilities an existing and proven educational option that meets their individual needs.

MPAC’s closure is not a “what if” scenario. Last year, MCPS unilaterally terminated its Collaborative Autism Pre-school Program (“CAPP”) with MPAC. Instead, it placed all eligible pre-K children with autism in MCPS’ public CAPP programs – many of which opened with instructors who had no prior experience teaching children with autism. Without students, MPAC had to shut down its CAPP program. There currently is no option available for children with autism ages 3-5 whose severity of needs requires the intensity of the CAPP program MPAC previously provided. If MCPS’ goal was to serve more pre-K children with autism by steering all eligible children into the public CAPP program, that goal was met. Sadly, however, it was achieved at the expense of certain autistic children who, because of severity of their needs, should have been placed in a CAPP program at MPAC.

Federal special education law requires MPAC to provide a continuum of alternative placements. When MCPS eliminates programs like MPAC, CAPP at MPAC, and the learning centers, it eliminates settings that some of its children need to make educational progress. Vote NO on the proposal to Realign Non-Public Preschool Tuition.

There's still time to express your opinion -- email and urge them to oppose this risky proposal.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kentucky Schools: Pay No Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain

As reported by the Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County last week, Superintendent Jerry Weast was the keynote speaker this Saturday at the annual conference of the Kentucky School Boards Association. The meeting's website said Dr. Weast would discuss his "ambitious comprehensive reform effort" to meet the needs of all students. When I heard that, I was compelled to write a letter to the editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Since the paper didn't publish it, here it is. If you have friends in Kentucky, pass it along to them too.

To the Editor:

I found it interesting that the Kentucky School Boards Association invited Dr. Jerry Weast, superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Md., to speak at its annual meeting in Louisville Jan. 22-24 about his efforts to "invest in preschool education for both public and private providers." At the same time he is preparing his remarks on this important topic, parents like me who are raising a child with special needs are actively opposing a plan by Dr. Weast that would effectively close down a proven preschool for children with severe disabilities who need early intervention.

Before Kentucky educators decide to follow Dr. Weast's lead in the area of special education, you should know that parents whose children would be affected oppose his plan nearly unanimously. At a recent hearing, all 23 parents who testified on this topic adamantly urged the Board of Education to overturn his proposal to abandon this successful program and move children to an experimental public program with no known education model, curriculum, or parent involvement. If parents and educators in Kentucky support the right of all children to receive an appropriate education, think twice before holding up Dr. Weast as a role model.

-Mark Miller

Preschool Targeted by "Ill-Prepared Proposal" Is County's "Best-Kept Secret"

In the second evening of hearings at the Montgomery County Board of Education on Jan. 20, Maria Dudish got a standing ovation for her emotional testimony. Please take the time to read this and then tell the Board why Dr. Weast's plan is a bad idea. Email

"My name is Maria Dudish, and I want to tell you the best kept secret of this whole budget process. The best kept secret I am referring to is the value that the school system gets for its money from the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center.

"With all of the cuts you will need to discuss and make during this budget year, you are very fortunate to have this cost-effective, time-tested, and outcome-driven program for our county’s youngest citizens with moderate to significant needs.

"I am the mother of Tara, age 26, who has intellectual disabilities and autism. She attended the MPAC program at the ages of 3 and 4. When Tara went into a MCPS kindergarten at age 5, because I had a social work background, I began working at MPAC as the family coordinator. That was over 20 years ago.

"With the many cuts you will need to make to many high-quality programs, do not dismantle this comprehensive Early Childhood Program, MPAC, that has given you so much value for over 35 years with experienced professionals like me.

"With the many cuts you will need to make, do not dismantle MPAC, a program that excels at serving families, a key component of a successful early intervention program.

"With the many cuts you will need to make, don’t dismantle a program, MPAC, that excels in communicating with our parents and gives them a head start, from the very beginning, at closing the achievement gap. Let me give you some statistics. Out of 75 families at our school, 44 percent qualify for Medicaid and 79 percent of our students are of minority status.

"With the many cuts you will need to make don’t dismantle a program, MPAC, that offers a variety of opportunities for preschool children to interact with their typical peers. MPAC has over 40 children without special needs at our Silver Spring site who play and learn with students from MPAC.

"Dr. Weast, do you know who we really are? On behalf of our families, our staff, and our students, we invite you and your early childhood administrators to come and visit us. Most of the administrators making the realignment proposal have never been to our school, and those that have, have not visited in the recent past.

"We have elected you, the members of the school board, to be good stewards of our taxes. We depend on you to use these funds wisely and in the best interests of all of our children. At a time when you are watching the costs of every program in the system, you have the responsibility to retain one of the best values MCPS has. We are efficient and we are effective. You have heard that from many of your satisfied constituents. Do the right fiscal thing. Yank this ill-prepared proposal. Be the watch-dog that we depend on you to be. Stop the realignment of 36 preschoolers -- and the transfer of non-public funds for this new initiative."

Testimony from Jan. 13 and Jan. 20 is now available on the Board of Education's website.

Even "Least Restrictive Environment" Advocates Oppose Weast's Preschool Plan

Montgomery County Superintendent Weast says his plan to move preschoolers from a proven program to an experimental public program is intended to meet children's needs in the "least restrictive environment." Not so fast, say the lead advocates for LRE in the county.

Testifying at a Board of Education hearing on Jan. 20, Ricki Sabia presented the views of the LRE Access Group of Montgomery County, a project of the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, educators, parents. and citizens. On the issue of Dr. Weast's plan to move students from the Montgomery Primary Achivement Center, she said:

"Our final issue tonight is the decision to open six 'community-based' preschool programs. It has been said that this will improve LRE. What we have learned from the issues with the learning center phase-out is that decisions that are supposed to be based on LRE and improved outcomes can sometimes end up having the opposite effect for certain affected students. Some children from MPAC who are currently well served and have interaction with typically developing same-age peers are likely to end up in one of the three community-based classes that do not have access to same-age peers at all. The other three have access to same-age peers who are at risk and may not be able to model age-level skills.

"The decision to open yet another program designed for a particular disability label is contrary to the direction MCPS was advised to go more than 10 years ago when it commissioned the Classical Program Review. In that report, Dr. Mc Laughlin recommended against continuing its 'sort and place' model. Dr. McLaughlin also raised concerns about the community-based curriculum which can 'track kids into a separate system of placement, instruction, and accountability.'

"In order to serve children with significant cognitive disabilities closer to home, MCPS should use UDL and other strategies and resources to make the existing PEP classes appropriate for more of these children instead of creating a new place for them to go. Any children for whom that solution is not appropriate should still have the opportunity to go to MPAC."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Video Highlights: Testimony Against Plan to Displace Special-Needs Preschoolers

At the Jan. 13 Board of Education hearing on the proposed FY11 budget, 23 of 29 people who testified were parents and advocates opposed to the realignment of preschool services for children with special needs. Here's what a few parents said. (See previous posts for more information.)

Polly MacLaine Pont: "Universal approach will mean lower-functioning students will benefit less....Even the best programs go through learning curves, but we should not make our kids suffer from those curves."

Amy Kim: "Plan lacks experience and understanding. A critical time for our youngest learners."

Lyda Astrove: "A one-size-fits-all model will not work for children with disabilities....It is not too late to reverse this disastrous course that has been pushed on you by the superintendent. Listen to your teachers and parents, and bring back the full continuum of services for students with disabilities."

Bob Allnutt: "Concept of inclusion is popular and politically correct, but the fact is many children are incapable of learning in a typical environment."

Laura Schweitzer: "Elementary school setting is overwhelming and ineffective for 3-year-olds....I don't know where we would have turned if MPAC had not been an option for us."

Doris Lee: "The school board is trying out an experiment on the most vulnerable children. Students like my child can't afford a lost year as the county works out the kinks of a new startup, or even a few months. 3- and 4-year-olds will be lost in the shuffle."

What do you think? Let board members know by emailing or call 301-279-3617.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Backlash Over Special-Needs Preschool Dominates Board of Education Hearing

Tonight was the first of two hearings at the Montgomery County Board of Education about the proposed "realignment" of preschool services for children with special needs. I've written a lot about this and have already shared my testimony (see post below), so now I want to share the perspectives of some other parents. For context, this was a very well-attended hearing on all aspects of the education budget. The standing-room-only group of parents, teachers, and students carried signs and passionately advocated for a variety of worthy issues -- including the opposition to proposed cuts to school bus transportation, library staff and services, middle school magnet programs, and gifted & talented programs.

But there is no question that parent opposition to the proposed special-needs preschool program dominated the evening. In order to comment on any issue, parents had to call on the morning of Dec. 23 to sign up, and the spots filled up fast. Of 29 people who testified, an amazing 23 were there to speak out against the preschool proposal. Not a single parent, board member, or anyone else defended the proposal. (The remaining six speakers addressed the other topics I mentioned above.)

Video speaks louder than written words, so I made sure to record some of the parents' testimony. The hearing was shown on local cable TV and webcast live on the Montgomery County Public Schools website, but the video is not yet available.

The hearings really opened my eyes to the many ways the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center has lived up to its name for the past 50 years -- helping so many children achieve to their highest potential. The parents, many of whom contrasted their experience with the public school system with the specialized services of MPAC, spoke passionately about how MPAC had given them hope and improved their children's lives. From parents whose children have been in the program for several months to parents whose children graduated from the program 20 years ago, all expressed their unqualified support for the program and its staff.

Many parents (politely) lashed out at the plan and the way it's been developed without the involvement of experts and parents. It was called "foolish, "hasty," "unwise," "experimental," and "risky." Attorney and parent Lauren Poper took it one step further, suggesting that the plan (and some of the county's past actions) may actually be illegal. "Federal special education law requires MCPS to provide a continuum of alternative placements," she said, "including instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions. When MCPS eliminates programs like eliminates settings that some of its students need to making educational progress."

She added that under federal law, "least restrictive environment" means children with disabilities "must be educated with children who are nondisabled to the extent that it is appropriate for the individual child. 'Appropriate' means that the education fits the child's special needs and allows the child to make educational progress. The law requires that this be an individual determination for each child. It is not legally permissible for MCPS to make a blanket decision to eliminate a program and predetermine the placement of all the current students in that program prior to their IEP meetings, as MCPS has done with the learning centers and CAPP at MPAC, and now plans to do with MPAC itself."

MPAC is a program Montgomery County should be proud to claim its own. For 35 years, the county has done a good job identifying and referring students who most need MPAC's intensive and specialized services. And that partnership has resulted in positive outcomes for those students and their families. The Board of Education can build on that success by opposing Dr. Weast's plan and continuing to support MPAC and other proven programs.

The Board of Education is still accepting public comments. You can send an email to or call 301-279-3617.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Don't Mess with Success: My Testimony in Favor of Special-Needs Preschool

Tomorrow at a hearing on the FY2011 education budget for Montgomery County, I will join many other parents in speaking out against a plan to displace preschoolers with special needs who are currently being served at a school that has partnered with the county for 35 years. I've written quite a bit about this, and I'm looking forward to the hearings. You can submit written comments to the board at Here's what I'll say:

My name is Mark Miller. I am a board member of the Arc of Montgomery County and a state advocacy coordinator for Autism Speaks. But I am here tonight to speak as a parent of a child who has attended both the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center and the School-Community Based program in Montgomery County.

My daughter is nearly 6 years old, and she has autism, a seizure disorder, and is non-verbal. When she was first diagnosed with autism at age 2, my wife and I were in crisis – we didn’t know anything about autism or what type of therapy she would need. Fortunately, she was able to attend the Toddler Collaborative Autism Preschool Program at MPAC, and she continued in the Collaborative Autism Preschool Program for the next few years. MPAC was the perfect place for herm and the skills she gained there will benefit her for the rest of her life.

MPAC was more than a preschool. It provided a complete range of specialized, intensive services to my daughter and our entire family. Some of the advantages of MPAC were:
- An on-site ABA specialist who worked closely with the teachers and aides to ensure that every child received the instruction they needed.
- There was a therapy room, specialized equipment, and occupational therapists, which was critical for her, because she had gross motor needs that impaired her balance, strength, coordination, and safety.
- MPAC had a family liaison who informed parents about workshops, trainings, and community resources to supplement the school’s own programs.
- All of my daughter's teachers and aides were specifically trained to meet students’ needs, including proven educational models for children with autism and a variety of methods to improve communications and social skills.

After three years at MPAC, when my daughter was 5, it was time for her to move on to kindergarten. Even though she has been medically diagnosed with autism, and despite the fact that the county’s tests classified her as severely autistic, she was not placed in the county’s autism program. Instead, she started kindergarten this year in the School-Community-Based Program.

The teacher-student ratio in her classroom is very good. Her teacher is committed to helping each of her students learn, and the principal, administrators, and other staff are supportive.

However, her teacher and aide did not have past experience teaching children with autism. We have gone from a setting where we learned from autism specialists into one where the teachers are learning on the job about autism.

Her current school has no gym available throughout the day, so the occupational therapist has to use whatever equipment is available in the classroom. She also receives fewer hours of intensive instruction than she did at MPAC.

I’ve read letters from Superintendent Weast and Montgomery County Public Schools referencing the need to give parents more options. I fully support that goal. But the proposed realignment of preschool services will actually eliminate options for the children with the most intensive needs.

For children like my daughter, I urge the Board of Education to oppose any plan that would threaten the specialized services that MPAC provides. MPAC has a proven track record of success. Unless the county has strong evidence that the proposed public program will be better than MPAC’s proven model, it should not take away this option for children like my daughter to receive services that are appropriate for their age and ability.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Plan to Displace High-Risk Preschoolers in Maryland Attracts Media Interest

It seems that when education officials try to shut down specialized services for children with special needs, parents and the media pay attention. Today the ongoing controversy to displace preschoolers in Montgomery County was covered by both News Channel 8 and the Gazette newspaper. View the TV story below.

After a 35-year partnership with the public school system, the Arc of Montgomery County, which oversees the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center (MPAC) found out about the plan to move preschoolers only through a small line item in the county's operating budget.

The change, while characterized as a "realignment" by Superintendent Jerry Weast, is actually a radical change in the way the county provides specialized instruction to preschoolers who need intervention. For three decades, the county has referred students to MPAC, which serves children ages 2 to 4 with developmental delays, autism, and intellectual disabilities. While Dr. Weast and the Board of Education acknowledge that MPAC has provided these services effectively, with measurable outcomes, he seems to have decided to sneak in this major change with no collaboration with MPAC, the Arc, or the parents of students who will be affected. Ellen Widoff, director of children's services for the Arc, said the school system is "trying to do this under the radar by not replicating our program in any way. At a time when there's no cost benefit at all, they're cutting a very appropriate program for high-risk kids."

A parent of a child with Down syndrome who attended MPAC, said the program helped her son learn to walk and gain self-confidence. "It was a very good experience for us," she said. "As a parent, you just get that feeling when you know a certain place is the right fit for your child. MPAC was that place."

The Board of Education is holding public hearings on the proposal on Jan. 13 and 2, and I will testify on Jan. 13 and report on that hearing. Parents have practically overwhelmed the board with calls asking to testify against the proposal and in support of the type of services MPAC provides, and there is a long waiting list for both dates. Interestingly, the public school system -- after not consulting with parents at all when they developed this proposal -- suddenly scheduled a meeting with MPAC parents for Jan. 11.

In a Dec. 29 letter sent to current MPAC parents, Gwendolyn Mason, director of special education services for the county, referenced the county's plan to "expand the preschool options for our youngest children with significant disabilities" -- but for all the talk about "options," "choices," and "expansion," they are proposing to pull their support for one of the county's best programs for preschool children with special needs, limit parents choices, and take away children's access to specialized services.

Special Educators are "Autism People of the Decade"

Kudos to the Left Brain/Right Brain blog (based in the UK) for naming special educators the "Autism People of the Decade." The author explains: "When I ask myself who really has made a difference in the quality of life for my autistic kid, it isn’t the researchers, the advocacy groups, or the 'personalities' in the autism community that I can point to. What has made a difference are the efforts of a group of therapists and teachers who have devoted themselves to low pay and hard work."

And he rightfully points out that the stories about special education that get the most attention are the ones that talk about problems like abuse, seclusion, restraint, and bullying -- so it's nice to see hard-working special ed teachers, aides, and therapists get some well-deserved recognition.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Special Hockey Players Brave Cold at NHL Winter Classic

I started 2010 by spending a fun day with young disabled hockey players at the NHL Winter Classic -- the first hockey game ever played at Fenway Park in Boston. The owner of the Boston Bruins, Jeremy Jacobs, personally ensured that youth hockey players would get free tickets to the game, and he was thoughtful to make sure each of the special hockey teams in New England were invited. We had players from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and this video shows how much fun they had.

Thanks to the Bruins, Mr. Jacobs, the Bruins Foundation, and the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone program for supporting special hockey players, coaches, volunteers, and parents. To learn more about special hockey and the American Special Hockey Association, visit our website, join our Facebook group, or follow us on Twitter.

Special Hockey at NHL Winter Classic from Mark Miller on Vimeo.

Disability Scoop

Special Ed News (Education Week)

Special Education Law