Special education has improved, some Hernando parents say

BROOKSVILLE — It's never a good sign when you have to tell people to be quiet.

In March, superintendent Wayne Alexander faced a barrage of parent complaints over the district's special education services during a town meeting on the Hernando County schools.

Some said they felt ignored by district staff. Others worried their children might slip through the cracks if forced to switch schools due to the district's rezoning process.

After fielding at least nine special-needs questions at what was intended to be a general meeting, Alexander declared the subject closed and scheduled a separate forum.

But nine months later, some of those parents say, an unexpected thing has happened. Things have gotten noticeably better.

"We do see progress," said Nikki Pierce, founder of Special Students of Hernando, a parent support group. "And I do think a lot of that progress can be attributed to education on the part of parents, educators and administration."

There are more parents on a county task force looking at ways to include special-needs students in regular classrooms, she said. And district staffers are reaching out to help parents work with schools to address problems.

"I've seen changes at the school site level, and I see changes being made at the district level," said Pierce, parent of a fourth-grader with dyslexia.

Marisa Santela was one of the parents who voiced concerns over last summer's school rezoning. Her autistic son had thrived at Deltona Elementary, and she worried he would be lost at the much larger Explorer K-8.

Santela was right to worry. When school started in August, her 8-year-old was placed in a group with 14 other children, all of whom had more serious disabilities or symptoms.

She immediately called the school and alerted officials to the mismatch. District staff, including Exceptional Student Education director Cathy Dofka, were visiting the school daily, and Santela's son was switched to a new room after Labor Day.

"I don't know if it was me calling or Cathy Dofka going to the school, but a lot of kids were moved around," Santela said.

Now her son is in a class with students at a similar level, with an experienced ESE teacher and two aides.

"We have some really good days, and we have some days where he's really off," Santela said. "(But) we get papers home every day, describing what he's working on. As long as you're not going backwards, that's a good sign."

The district plans to send a number of staffers to a Jan. 16 conference in Weeki Wachee on special education laws and advocacy, which is being presented jointly by the district and Special Students of Hernando.

That collaboration is an example of the "less adversarial" relationship that has blossomed this year between special-needs parents and the district, Dofka said.

Such gatherings, as well as the inclusion task force, have helped thaw icy feelings between the schools and parents, she said.

The district hasn't yet scheduled a follow-up on last spring's forum for special-needs parents. But it should, said Pierce of the parents' support group.

"As a parent, I would like to see more of that dialogue going on," she said. "Or some follow-up on what's being put in place. Not just be left not knowing."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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To learn more, visit www.specialstudentsofhernando.com.

Special education has improved, some Hernando parents say 12/29/08 [Last modified: Friday, January 2, 2009 10:04pm]

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