Parents are Nervous as District Integrates Students with Special Needs


Special Education Director Elizabeth Keenan says large concentrations of students with intensive needs can overwhelm schools.

Special Education Director Elizabeth Keenan says large concentrations of students with intensive needs can overwhelm schools.

by Mila Koumpilova -

More, smaller autism programs is the new direction for St. Paul schools, and that’s a source of anxiety for many parents.

Parents in the autism program at St. Paul’s Benjamin E. Mays International Magnet School love the spring play starring each student. They love the teachers and the interactive whiteboards in each classroom.

When they heard some students might have to switch schools next fall under a district overhaul, they rallied to oppose the change at a recent school board meeting.

The district is applying the learning-closer-to-home philosophy of its Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan to programs for students with autism, behavioral disabilities and other special needs. Next year, smaller programs will serve students at more neighborhood schools. Officials say that approach will give kids a better chance at easing into mainstream classrooms.

“We’re trying to break with this sense that special education programs are entities unto themselves rather than integral parts of the schools,” said Matthew Mohs, the district’s chief academic officer.

But some parents argue there’s strength in numbers at larger programs like the one at Ben Mays. They wonder if the district is giving itself enough time to handle a major shift for students who often struggle with transitions.

Last month, some Ben Mays parents received two letters, both dated Jan. 7. The one from the special education department told parents their student would have to move to an as-yet-unknown school. The one from the student placement center said their student would have a spot at Ben Mays, which unlike many district schools will remain a citywide magnet next fall.

Last week, the district announced it would allow students in the Ben Mays autism program to finish elementary school there.

St. Paul has nine self-contained autism programs across its roughly 70 schools. Next year, there will be twice as many, but they’ll be smaller. They’ll have two or three classrooms at the most, compared with as many as five now at the Ben Mays program, which serves more than 40 students.

The change is in keeping with the spirit of Strong Schools. Under the plan, most students will go to schools in their neighborhoods, except those attending magnet schools.

“We’re not talking about dismantling quality programs,” said Mohs. “We’re talking about replicating quality programs and doing it in a way that’s equitable across the district.”

Like general education students, children with autism will follow set “pathways” from elementary to middle to high school; that will help the district prepare them better for each transition.

Special Education Director Elizabeth Keenan says large concentrations of students with intensive needs can overwhelm schools. In recent years, schools have striven to include such students more in mainstream classrooms and activities.

Smaller programs will mean they can do that more often without pushing up class sizes and risking disruption. According to Keenan, the changes will affect about 200 students next fall; 6,800 receive special education services in the district.


To Ben Mays parents, the changes could threaten a program that — in the district administration’s lexicon — they dub “a pocket of excellence.”

“This pocket is successful in large part because of its size,” Dave Silvester, the father of fourth-grade twins in the program, told the school board last month.

Autistic second-grader Adriana Morant gets help from teacher Joy Fehring as Adriana works on her writing skills at an interactive white board in the classroom at St. Paul’s Benjamin Mays Elementary School. (Pioneer Press: John Doman)

size, parents say, the program enjoys a full-time team of support specialists such as an occupational therapist. Alone among district autism programs, it has interactive whiteboards in each classroom.

Such technology makes it easier to engage students using several senses at once. On a recent morning in one Ben Mays classroom, students belted out multiplication problems to a high-energy rap tune as numbers flashed against a bright-pink screen.

Most important, parents feel the program’s size has made it a force to be reckoned with at the school, which has cultivated a unique culture of inclusion. Children with autism have breakfast and a morning meeting with their general education peers; they spend time in mainstream classrooms in clusters, which takes away some of the anxiety of traveling between rooms.

Norma Crumble told the school board her third-grade daughter struggled at a different school. In kindergarten, she hid under tables in the busy cafeteria. In first grade, she regularly disrupted her class.

She joined the Ben Mays program later that year, and within months, she stopped acting out.

“She has since grown into a little social butterfly,” Crumble said.


After about a dozen parents addressed the board, Superintendent Valeria Silva thanked them and told them the district plans to let their children stay put. Last week, it became official: The district will make an exception for Ben Mays, grandfathering current families.

“It’s a really special program,” Keenan said.

Families at other programs are nervous about the upcoming moves.

Read more at St. Paul schools: Breaking up autism programs concerns many students’ parents.

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