Fairbanks community members raise concerns about effect of school closures on special education

Published: Feb. 25, 2022 at 4:54 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - On February 1, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board voted to close Joy and Anderson Elementary Schools, while repurposing Nordale Elementary.

For the 2022-2023 school year, students from those three schools will be distributed among other schools around the district. This has led to concerns in the community about how the transition will affect students in Special Education programs.

Rachel Read, mother of a child using these programs, said, “Not one person has reached out to see how the kids are handling that, and not to see if the parents need any help.”

In the School District, 2,299 students are enrolled in an Individualized Education Program (IEP). IEPs are documents used to guide special education students who need more personalized instruction plans.

An IEP team always contains a parent, someone representing the school district, a general education teacher and a special education provider, according to Derek Coryell, the School District’s Executive Director of Special Education.

These students vary in the amount of support staff they require. “The student to adult ratio could be four or five adults to one to two students. In other cases where students are not as heavily impacted, looking at reading support, writing support, math support, the case loads are going to look different, so putting a number on it would really be impossible,” Coryell said.

Read’s son E.J. is currently enrolled in the Special Education program at Joy. They both testified to the school board before the group voted 4-3 in favor of the school closures. “I didn’t hear anyone fight, on the board, for the special ed[ucation] kids.”

According to the school district, as of February 1st of this year, Joy Elementary has 94 students with IEPs, and Nordale has 70.

These will be among the students changing schools. Read explained, “Autistic kids in general take, on average, six months to adjust to a new schedule - and if they’re not comfortable, it is not only going to be torture for them, it’s going to be torture for every person in that building that has to deal with them.”

Coryell said, “An unplanned transition, I know, can be stressful, and cause angst, and that’s not lost on us.”

Read said she is concerned by the school district not having a solid transition plan prior to the board’s vote. “That’s what shocked me the most,” she said, adding, “It was just ‘We’ll decide this after the vote.’”

With much to be done before the start of the coming school year, Read worries about whether there’s time to make a smooth transition. “My biggest fear is that they’re not going to have the supports, they’re not going to have the staff, they’re not going to have the room, and all of these Special Ed kids are going to fall through the cracks.”

According to Coryell, while not every Special Education student will have the same teachers and staff, the district will maintain its full program staffing level. “There will not be any change in the quantity or quality of the services our students will receive at whatever school they end up in our school district.”

Meanwhile, Coryell said there will be summer programs available for students having trouble with the transition. “I know that this has been gut-wrenching and very difficult for many, and we are honestly trying everything we can do to mitigate any of the impact on children and families,” he added.

Coryell argues that Joy Elementary, despite having 94 students with IEPs, isn’t outside the normal range for the district. “There’s not any school in our district that would not feel a similar impact.”

Between Nordale, Joy and Anderson Elementary schools, 213 students with IEPs will need to transition to other schools.

But what effect will the transition to new schools have on these plans? Coryell argues there won’t be many amendments needed to the documents. “The way that IEPs look is there’s a service page on an IEP and it spells out very clearly the type of service and the duration of the service,” he said, adding, “That can be provided at any school and any grade level.”

Read, however, worries about whether there will be time to make the necessary adjustments to these documents before the new school year begins. “The kids from 5th grade that currently have I-E-Ps that transition into next year, those I-E-Ps are scheduled and structured around their current situation, which is staying in that school - and so all of their I-E-Ps are going to have to be amended to include a different building, different staff, four or five different teachers... they’re going to have to have transition meetings, meet the staff, [and] tour the schools.”

This, Read argues is not feasible by the end of the school year -- a situation she says is made worse by increased crowding in some schools, which she argues could trigger behavior in students like her son E.J. who are protective of their personal space. “He has a personal bubble space, and he does not like it when people go into his bubble without him being aware of it prior -- and being in an extremely crowded hallway... I’m afraid that someone’s going to bump into him, and he’s going to react as he normally does, which is turn around and either push them out of the way or punch them.”

These and many more questions remain about how the closures of these schools will affect schooling in the district next year.

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