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School District program would reshape support for autism

A school day can be a dizzying experience for any student.

For a student with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, it can be a minute-to-minute struggle.

Often children with ASD have trouble fitting into groups and find rules hard to follow. Even small changes in routine can lead to big breakdowns.

On Bainbridge, parents of the growing number of children diagnosed with ASD are frustrated that the school district has no established model for working with their kids, who don’t readily fit into the regular classroom or special education programs. Teachers too are finding they don’t have the tools or time to help ASD students in their classrooms.

“Averaging out to about once a week we have gotten a frantic telephone call from an exhausted, confused educator seeking answers, seeking expertise, seeking solace around our child’s needs,” one parent of an ASD student wrote in an anonymous letter parents delivered to the school board last month.

With frustration growing in and out of the classroom, Bainbridge Island School District is rethinking the way it approaches students with ASD.

For more than a year the school district, with the urging of parent group Island Autism Moms (IAM), has been working to develop a program that can better meet the needs of the roughly 40 students with ASD in island schools.

A framework for an ASD model has been outlined and was presented to the school board in March.

Currently ASD students are incorporated into regular classrooms and given varying degrees of added support from para-educators.

Under the new model, a single person, trained in ASD education, would oversee the district-wide K-6 program. Each school would have a team of existing staff members with extra training to work with ASD students, and space would be set aside in each building to allow ASD students to be brought out of class and worked with individually.

Each student would have his or her own “toolkit,” a package of information including behavioral issues, strategies the student has responded well to, that could be used and updated by staff. That way, as the student progressed through the grades, each new teacher would not be starting from scratch.

The goal of the model would be to maximize the amount of time the students spend in a regular classroom, but with a ready team to offer support as needed.

But major components of the plan, including staffing allocations, will need to be cemented in the coming month if the plan is to be implemented at the beginning of the next school year. And money for the program will have to be squeezed from the district’s budget at a time when heavy cuts are projected.

“This is just a really complicated initiative here in the district,” said Assistant Supt. Clayton Mork, who is leading development of the program for the district. “It’s further complicated by the budget issues.”

IAM founder Carie Bude said parents of ASD students are determined to get a commitment from the district this spring to implement the full model and are concerned the program will be ineffective if it’s pared down.

Bude said in the past, parents in her group have discussed busing their kids to schools with ASD programs or even starting their own school on the island, but in the end they want to see a solution within BISD.

“Our heart is in supporting public schools,” Bude said. “But there does have to be a point when enough is enough.”

The district was first spurred to action in the run up to the start of the 2008-2009 school year, when it was realized that nearly 30 students would be graduating into kindergarten from developmental preschool programs. Nearly a third were diagnosed with autism.

Working with IAM, the district constructed a model that would designate a classroom and para-educator at each school to for students with ASD. But the program never came to fruition.

District staff and parents went back to work on a comprehensive model that would cover ASD students as they progressed from grades K-6.

The difficulties ASD presents for educators are endless and dizzying.

To begin with, an autism diagnosis can fall on a spectrum that ranges from mild to debilitatingly severe. Each child has its own set of symptoms and reacts differently to various situations.

Transitions are especially tough. One parent compared transition of an ASD student moving to a new grade level to the chaos an adult experiences when switching jobs. At the same time, ASD students tend to learn well with visual aids such as color-coded schedules, thrive in structured environments and are advanced learners in the right system.

“The great thing about these kids, is that when you find out what works for them, it works for them,” Wilkes Elementary Principal Sheryl Belt said.

To people unfamiliar with the disorder, the most convenient solution might seem to lump all ASD students in a single school. But district staff and parents say that would be a mistake.

Teachers say the disruption caused by just a handful of ASD students in the same classroom can break down a learning environment. And being in a regular classroom can help ASD students learn by cueing off of non-ASD students.

Parents and staff agree that the model settled upon, with a well trained district coordinator overseeing building-level teams, could provide individualized support for the students as well as continuity throughout all grades in the district. ASD students would remain in their regular neighborhood schools.

Getting the program in place, especially the coordinating position, will be difficult given the district’s looming budget shortfall.

But Bude said all parts of the model should be considered integral.

“We’re not going to settle for anything less than what’s been presented, because that’s what’s required,” Bude said. “It’s not a dream.”

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