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Pinellas draws heat for moving special needs adults to high schools

Sue Maltzahn, left, helps her daughter, Brittany Castillo, 21, practice using a hole punch in their Gulfport home. Brittany is in Pinellas’ Extended Transitions program, which aids young adults with special needs.
Sue Maltzahn, left, helps her daughter, Brittany Castillo, 21, practice using a hole punch in their Gulfport home. Brittany is in Pinellas’ Extended Transitions program, which aids young adults with special needs.
Published May 9, 2017

GULFPORT — A year passed before the seizures subsided for Brittany Castillo.

Her first few weeks screenprinting and selling T-shirts in the "Extended Transition" program at Disston Academy were smooth until her teacher abruptly left. Then her seizures ramped up to 20 a day, even on a three-minute bus ride from her home that ended with the driver calling 911.

Castillo, who just turned 21, has one year left in the Pinellas County school district program for special needs adults ages 18 to 22 who have completed high school and wish to continue life skills and job training.

But a district plan to decentralize the program by moving about 50 of its students to local high schools has drawn stiff opposition from parents and guardians, who say it will hurt a vulnerable student population that doesn't adjust well to change. The move, they say, also will be interpreted by the students as a demotion — going from the cusp of the working world to being back in high school.

If a change in teachers can cause seizures, there's no telling what might happen with a change of schools, said Sue Maltzahn, Castillo's mother.

"I don't want to have to educate the world again," she said, referring to the process of training the staff to handle her daughter's seizures.

"We did that," she said. "Our kids are grown."

Officials announced the decision at a School Board workshop in April as a way to cut down on costs and make the program more efficient. Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett said the change would reassign two instructional and two support positions in Extended Transition to another school in the county, cutting about $200,000 from the program's $2.3 million budget.

"We think it's going to be a more effective program," Corbett told board members. "A lot of services at the high schools we already give to kids."

Extended Transition's more independent students often spend their days working at Innisbrook Golf Resort, the Don CeSar hotel and Goodwill, occasionally checking in at a school site. But students like Castillo, with more significant disabilities, often spend their whole day at Disston, where the program has been housed for three years.

She is one of 22 students slated to go to Northeast High. Another 27 students who work with Goodwill and the Don CeSar will go to Gibbs High instead of Disston for their home base. Students in other Extended Transition programs will be moved to locations not yet determined.

Students in the landscaping program will remain at Disston because the school has a greenhouse and multiple gardens on site. The Extended Transition program has about 170 students countywide, and some will go to Pinellas Park and Countryside high schools.

At a recent meeting at Disston, the district's director of Exceptional Student Education, Jane Golding, met with about 30 parents, students and advocates to explain the change. She tried to sell them on the facility at Northeast High, a former child care program. Students will have a separate entrance, bus circle and spaces for Extended Transition. She assured them that the quality of the programs would not change and that students would not mix with Northeast's traditional students.

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But when it came to the reasons for the shuffle, Golding's answer was different from what Corbett had told the School Board. Golding said the demand for students taking credit recovery courses was growing and space was needed at Disston to accommodate those students.

Corbett, in a separate interview, clarified that the need for space was part of the district's decision, but the district does not expect an increase in students needing alternative education, which includes credit recovery.

Parents and guardians at the meeting were outraged to hear the district's decision was final.

Matthew Graham, 21, is in his second year in the enterprise program at Disston.

"Sending him to a high school is like sending him backward," said his grandfather, Brad Graham. "These kids don't take change well."

"They're treated like adults (at Disston)," said Melanie Price, whose son, Christian Surber, 19, practices the skill of categorizing by working on organizing and filing at the school.

"They're going to feel like they're being punished," she said. "This is a very vulnerable group."

Betsy Roller, a second-year teacher in Extended Transition, spoke out against the district's decision and on behalf of her students at a School Board meeting April 25.

"Their community is being splintered," she said, "and that's how they feel."

Corbett said the district took the students' sensitivity into account when making the decision.

"The bottom line is we do have a district to run," he said. "We do have to make efficient use of resources, efficient use of real estate. . . . Whenever we do that, there are students who need to be moved."

He added: "The students adapt to it quicker than anybody else. That's been my experience, that students adapt to the change the fastest."

Maltzahn, Brittany Castillo's mother, says that is not the case for her daughter, who got lost in their house when they moved from North Florida three years ago. Now, she said, it feels like her daughter and her peers in the program are "throwaway children."

"She's frustrated and irritated," Maltzahn said, "and doesn't understand what's going to happen."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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