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STUDENTS WILL SHIFT SCHOOLS

Some special-needs students will move from "cluster'' schools to neighborhoods.

School may be closer to home next fall for some Hernando County special-needs students.

District officials plan to move some students at three special-needs "cluster schools" back to their neighborhood schools by August, and are currently studying student files to determine which ones might benefit.

Officials have described the changes in terms of both fairness and legal compliance. Under federal law, each child must be educated in the "least restrictive environment" possible, something Superintendent Wayne Alexander said hasn't always happened in cost-conscious Hernando Schools.

None of the students at the three cluster schools - West Hernando Middle School, and Deltona and Moton elementary schools - will be transferred without consultations with parents, to ensure their educational needs can be fully met in their neighborhood schools, said Kathy Dofka, director of exceptional student education.

It's not clear exactly how many children will be affected.

Some children have particularly serious or training-intensive needs, including physical impairments, serious medical problems, or traumatic brain injuries, and will stay in their cluster schools, Dofka said. Of the county's 3,459 special-needs students, some 65 fall into those high-needs categories.

For other special-needs children who aren't already in their neighborhood schools, the determination will be made on an individual basis, depending on their needs and the availability of staff. Some children with high-functioning autism, or those in the broad category of "trainable mentally handicapped," can be served effectively in their neighborhood schools, Dofka said.

The changes are complicated because all district schools will redraw boundaries this summer, shifting about a fifth of the county's 23,000 students to new schools. Some special-needs staff may be transferred to other schools to ensure all children get the services they need, Dofka said.

But the changes will also help schools that are now being penalized under the No Child Left Behind Act.

That federal law requires students in all groups - even those with severe disabilities - to make annual progress on standardized tests. Both West Hernando and Deltona have been penalized for not doing so consistently among their unusually large group of special-needs students.

Alexander, a former special education teacher with experience in both Florida and Connecticut, has said the district's long-standing practice of centralizing special-needs students in cluster schools has sometimes gone further than the national norm.

"We're going to move away from the cluster format," except for students with the most severe needs, he said recently.

Even Joe Clifford, principal at West Hernando Middle School, says he's philosophically opposed to clustering most special-needs students. His school has drawn national attention for its effective use of inclusion, the practice of integrating special-needs students into classes with their general education peers.

"We have to help students develop natural relationships in the communities in which they live," Clifford said.

Students with high-functioning autism or other handicaps need support in the classroom, as do their teachers. But effective training allows teachers to manage, and do so without holding other students back, he said.

"It's not magic," Clifford added. "It's good teaching."

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

By the numbers

1/5 of the county's 23,000 students, approximately, will be shifted as the district draws new boundaries this summer.

3,459 special-needs students are currently in the district.

65 of those special-needs students fall into high-needs categories.

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