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 boe@mcpsmd.org. 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.
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