OPRF special ed: It's been a frustrating year

Opinion

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Terry Burke, Scott Berman, One View

This could have been a great school year but it has primarily been one of frustration.

It was one year ago that we wrote in WEDNESDAY JOURNAL about our experience with the TEAM program in the Special Education Department at OPRF. We were working with other parents for improvements in the TEAM program that our daughter Rachel attends. We wrote back then that the special ed TEAM administrators ran an outdated and ineffective program, and we noted that they seemed "resistant to change."

A year later we know now that was a great understatement. This has been an exceedingly difficult year. In addition to the stresses of raising a teenager with autism, we have had to strenuously fight every inch of the way for improvements in the TEAM program. Gains have been made, but intransigence by TEAM administrators has continually blocked needed reforms.

A current research-based program, called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), is being used with considerable success in public and private educational programs for students with disabilities across the country. Verbal Behavior ABA has been the only program that has been effective with Rachel. In 2003, 32 TEAM families signed a letter requesting teacher training in Verbal Behavior ABA.

Following the letter and meetings with OPRF, there was a very public battle last year to get some Verbal Behavior ABA methods for small groups into the TEAM program. At the end of the school year, an 8-week Verbal Behavior ABA pilot was approved by the District 200 school board and administration. The results were astounding! The pre- and post-tests were proctored by the high school's psychologist. All three of the students who joined our daughter's ABA program for two periods a day learned to count money, tell time, and do some simple math.

The father of one of the students, Rich Miller, said he never imagined that his daughter could learn to count money so well. This was accomplished in only eight weeks.

With the dramatic success of the pilot, the parents ran an ABA summer school for two hours a day. Again, another one of the students blew us away with what he learned in eight weeks?#34;20-year-old Stefan Koss learned to count money, tell time and do some math problems. Amazingly, he started telling his parents that he loved to learn.

However, these very successful methods have been blocked from use in the TEAM classrooms. Instead of in-school training in the Verbal Behavior ABA requested by 32 families, TEAM chair Nikki Paplacyzk chose an 8-day, out-of-school training program that uses Lovaas ABA?#34;training no parent requested and which parents actually spoke against. Verbal Behavior ABA incorporates much more of the research of the last 20 years than Lovaas ABA.

Instead of an exciting school year, this one has been just one more where our students have made minimal progress?#34;one more where we have watched their frustration. It has been heartbreaking to know this could have been an historic year. Our daughter's money skills have clearly regressed these past seven months.

Our students with cognitive disabilities are the most challenging students at OPRF to effectively teach. Standard teaching approaches are not effective with them. It is beyond our comprehension why highly paid professionals who are supposed to be working with our students' best interests at heart are consistently blocking teaching methods that are effective. We see this as a failure of leadership by the TEAM chair and the special ed director, rather than the fault of teachers and aides.

A respected ABA consultant who is working on her master's degree in administration had been approved as an intern in special education this semester under Special Ed Director Linda Cada. We were eagerly anticipating her stint at OPRF, but she had to switch her internship to another high school after repeatedly being canceled at OPRF by special ed administration. The loss of this internship means that OPRF has lost hundreds of hours of free Verbal Behavior ABA training, worth thousands of dollars.

These tactics of the TEAM and special ed administration?#34;delay, delay, then negotiate and delay?#34;are the responses of an entrenched bureaucracy which perceives their own power to be threatened. It is clear to us that the special ed administration simply does not believe that TEAM students are capable of significant learning gains.

Other families have thanked us for speaking out for changes in special education. Many people are justifiably concerned about coming forward for fear of retaliation.

Our choices are limited. We can move, as other families have done; we can home-school Rachel; we can give up, despite our knowledge that a much better educational program is possible; or we can continue to work for changes at OPRF.

So it is with a heavy heart that we have decided to stay and continue to fight publicly for change in special ed at OPRF. We firmly believe that it is Rachel's basic human right to receive a quality education in an institution that treats her with dignity and respect, as it is for all students with or without disabilities.

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