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Jeffco parents, wary of middle school options, ask for more help for students with autism

BROOMFIELD — Beth Roberts is worried. She’s worried that when her son, Benjamin, moves on to middle school in the fall, no one will be there to help him manage his education — and his autism.

For three years, Benjamin has thrived at Betty Adams Elementary School. Roberts credits the highly trained staff at the school, which has special resources for students with autism. Now, Roberts is faced with sending Ben to a middle school where she isn’t certain whether the staff will be prepared to meet his needs.

“Our hearts ache because it’s so hard for these guys to manage socially,” Roberts said. “Middle school is challenging for anybody.”

That’s why Roberts, along with a dozen other Betty Adams parents, is asking the Jeffco Public Schools to expand their autism services — which include dedicated classrooms — to its middle schools that serve seventh and eighth graders.

District officials, who met with Roberts and the other parents this week, say they understand their concerns. But they believe the district’s middle schools are well-prepared to meet those students’ needs.

Further, they stress that the autism center at Betty Adams — and at 20 other locations across the district — are designed to prepare students for middle school and beyond, so that students need as little help as possible and can succeed in a general education classroom.

The parents’ request for more middle school services highlights an ongoing debate about what types of help students with special needs should receive, and when and how they should be rolled back.

Schools under federal law are tasked with providing all students with an education in the most unrestricted environment. That means schools are expected to move more students into general education classrooms.

“They moved these students into Betty Adams, now they’re saying ‘good luck,’ in middle school,” Roberts said. “For a kid with anxiety, he’d sure like to know where he’s going to school next year.”

District officials disagree that the transition to middle school will be a sink-or-swim moment for the sixth graders at Betty Adams. While it’s true that the middle schools don’t operate so-called autism centers or labs, each middle school is staffed with special education teachers, psychologists and speech pathologists to meet the needs of students like Benjamin.

“It would be a grand assumption to say those services stop at middle school,” said Kevin Carroll, Jeffco’s chief student success officer, who met with Roberts and other parents last week.

Jeffco officials argue that if the elementary school centers do their job well — and no parent seems to be disputing this — the demand for explicit services for students with autism should no longer be needed once they hit middle school.

But Roberts fears removing a safety net of the kind provided at Betty Adams coupled with the new pressures of middle school — lockers, a more complicated schedule, hormones — will set Benjamin and other students back.

Approximately one in 68 U.S. children live with autism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The large number is in part due to a broad definition of symptoms. The condition is more common in boys than girls.

Students who are enrolled at one of the district’s elementary schools with an autism center typically begin with intense help that include small classrooms where social skills are taught alongside math and reading, and regular monitoring by school psychologists and a speech pathologist. As students develop skills to communicate, socialize and self-regulate behavior, they gradually spend more time in mainstream classrooms.

The goal of the center is to provide students with the tools and skills to manage their own educational experiences with as little adult support as possible. That includes making sure students are able to maintain and follow a schedule, use social skills to make and keep friends, and communicate their learning and needs.

“We’re always looking at seventh grade and asking ourselves, ‘How do we make the students as independent as possible?’” said Jen Albanes, Betty Adam’s school psychologist.

The center — which comes equipped with a quiet space, body socks and bean bags to help students manage their behavior and sensory needs — also remains open to students who have graduated to a general classroom.

It’s that kind of dedicated space and training that Roberts and the other families want to know exist at their neighborhood middle schools — or another center — for their students.

More than 5,600 students in Colorado public schools live with autism, said Brooke Carson, the state’s autism specialist. Services vary from district to district because of funding and local control laws.

Dedicated programs such as the one at Betty Adams are common at elementary schools in larger metro-area school districts, Carson said.

Some districts, such as Aurora Public Schools, also have centers at the middle school level.

Many school districts, especially rural ones, are struggling because the numbers of students diagnosed with autism is growing rapidly, Carson said.

“The numbers are so extreme,” she said. “And teaching students with autism isn’t something that is taught in our teacher preparatory schools.”

Jeffco, however, has been proactive in its approach to teaching students with autism, Carson said.

Working with the state since 2010, Jeffco has met voluntary benchmarks the state believes are necessary to meet the needs of students with autism at two schools. Carson said she’s seen Jeffco use those schools as models for the rest of the district.

“That’s something Jeffco has done very well — share information across their district,” she said.

Roberts and other parents aren’t convinced.

Donna Noble, another Betty Adams parent, said her neighborhood school tried to meet the needs of her son, Jack, but failed.

“They tried,” she said. “But we’re proof that that’s not the case.”

Both Roberts and Noble visited several middle schools in the district to evaluate whether they could meet the needs of their children. So far, they’ve been unimpressed. Noble is strongly considering homeschooling Jack. Roberts says she’s tracking down every lead on schools that can support her son.

“It’s a lot of hearsay,” Roberts said. “You’re following up on suggestions you hear on the soccer field.”

Diana Wilson, Jeffco’s chief communication officer, said the lack of knowledge about school programs is a problem.

She said updating the school district’s website with more information about special education and other programs at every school, so parents can have a better overview of choices, is a top priority.

As for the students at Betty Adams, unless the parents successfully lobby for changes, each will continue to be monitored with a federally required individualized learning plan. The students and their families will meet with teachers and specialists at the school they enroll in, officials said. Some will likely be placed in general education classrooms, others will be placed at a significant support center.

Carroll, the student success officer who was just appointed to his position this year, said he is ready to listen to the Betty Adams parents but added that he isn’t prepared to make any promises, in part due to limited resources.

“I did not get a trunk full of money to implement new programs,” he said. “I’d hate to say absolutely yes or absolutely no.”

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