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.
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