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Families rally to save special ed teacher threatened by budget cuts

The rumblings started in March.

Parents of adults with disabilities heard that state budget cuts could affect the staff in a program they love.

At Bay Pines Life Skills, a nondescript, cream-colored house in Madeira Beach, 18 developmentally delayed adults learn basic tasks like handling money, grocery shopping, cleaning and, simply, working with others.

Parents wrote legislators to protest.

And still it came.

The county could support only six teachers in programs like this district-wide. There were seven.

Someone had to go. The least tenured.

Chris Carter.

• • •

What happens at Bay Pines Life Skills sounds simple enough. One teacher, one teacher's assistant and a bunch of students.

But for parents of these adults, ages 22 and up, what Carter has done here for the last three years is essential and rare and worth saving — especially when government funding cuts threaten to remove the one thing they believe makes this program everything it is.

But the parents didn't just complain to the Pinellas County School Board — at a Tuesday board meeting they showed up with money. Donations of $26,700 to cover half of Carter's salary and benefits, to be exact.

"This," said Carter's supervisor, "is a first."

• • •

David Watkins is 41 and moves about in a wheelchair.

He has Down syndrome and a host of health issues including a pinned hip that, on any given day, could interfere with his plans to go to school.

But since he began attending Carter's class, his mother says, nothing can keep him away.

"I have to get to Bay Pines," he'll say. "Chris needs me."

Carter isn't sure how he lucked into this job.

He was an elementary school behavioral specialist for 12 years when he heard of the teacher opening at Bay Pines. His sister-in-law is developmentally delayed and he had a teaching certification in special education, but he otherwise had no experience teaching this population.

He was hooked the first day.

"You say, 'Stand up, push in your chairs, let's go to the computer room,' and they do it, simple as that," he said. "You see the appreciation every day and it's so wonderful."

On Wednesday, he pulled four magnetic quarters from a box labeled "Big Money," then slapped them on the white board before his attentive audience.

"Vanette," he called to a student. "Four quarters?"

"Twenty-five," Vanette Veal started to say, hesitated, then corrected herself. "A dollar!"

Carter turned back to the board and pulled two quarters away.

"Stacey," he called to a dark-haired woman next to Veal. "Two quarters?"

"Fifty cents," Stacey Culbertson smiled.

Her classmates cheered.

Though many of the lessons are elementary, Carter treats his students as adults.

They have jobs.

John takes out the trash. Josh erases the board.

They have choices.

What song do they want to exercise to? What food group do they want to discuss?

Ed Cunningham, father of Patrick Cunningham, a cheerful 28-year-old with Down syndrome, says Carter has created a noticeable difference in his son over the last three years.

He speaks better. He relates to the outside world more easily. At home, he takes more responsibility for household chores.

"These students can sense when someone really cares," Cunningham said. "They think of Chris as family."

• • •

When you're the parent of a child with a disability, you learn how to make things happen.

Parents involved in the 400-member Advocates for Insuring Retardates Entitlement (AFIRE), do that. Every year, they host a bowl-a-thon and a golf tournament to raise money to help students who can't afford tuition to programs that might help them.

And sometimes they get fighting mad when their children are denied what's best for them. Carol Culbertson, AFIRE's vice president, knew that another cut to their tiny sliver of the public funding pie would further limit options for people like her daughter, 39, who attends Bay Pines.

The already meager Adults with Disabilities budget that in 2000 totaled $790,000 and paid for 13 teachers, was reduced to just $554,956 — enough money to support only six.

So when the AFIRE board learned Carter might be out, they sized up their treasury pot and made a decision.

Offer the money to the school district to keep Carter in place for at least a year. Then, look for private money to pay for him permanently.

It is his calling, they said. He's a natural.

When Carter realized his students needed help with their telephone skills, he assigned them to call his own mother each week for a one-on-one conversation.

When he wanted them to get real-life experience in retail, he assigned them to make pencil holders and picture frames, then secured a flea market booth where they could sell them, bag them and make change.

"They may not be realizing what they're learning because its fun," Culbertson said. "But they're learning very valuable skills."

• • •

School officials say they will meet to discuss what might be done.

Laura Sargent, Carter's supervisor who oversees adult education for the district, said cuts like these always create heartache.

But the way these parents have rallied is completely different.

After seeing him in the classroom, though, Sargent says she understands. "I have been fortunate to work with many great teachers in this program," she said.

"But he really, really has set the bar high."

• • •

As Carter finished his lesson on money Wednesday, he smiled with approval.

"You guys did well at that," he said.

"Thank you," answered John Gjeldum, 25, from the back.

"You're such a nice teacher," said Yasmin Baker, 28.

Another student chimed in from across the room: "We want to keep you."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Families rally to save special ed teacher threatened by budget cuts 05/27/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 27, 2010 11:04am]
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