Heidi Klukas expected her son would automatically be placed into the citywide autism program in the Minneapolis School District this fall.

After all, William, who is classified as Level 2 on the autism spectrum, has been in the ­preschool program since he was 3.

But days before she had to make her kindergarten selection known to the district, William's social worker called to warn Klukas that the program was being discontinued for ­students with less severe cases.

District officials say the program will no longer accept students classified as Level 1 or 2 (out of three) autistic because they can be served in their community schools, rather than in specialized programs. Students ­currently enrolled in the program are unaffected, district officials said.

Klukas said she was so desperate to get her son into Lake Nokomis-Wenonah that she is now renting a house in that area, because she thinks the specialized services will continue to be offered even if the school is no longer part of the citywide program.

Klukas is among more than a dozen parents who have organized to protest the school district's decision to disperse autistic students throughout the city. They say the changes will "starve" a program that has helped their children become less reliant on autism teachers, and they fear their children will regress to more severe classifications because they will not receive the support and services that the citywide program offers.

In the past, district officials have touted the autism program as a strong way to recruit families from surrounding metro areas because it offers resources that others do not. That is partly why parents are dumbfounded that the ­district is planning such drastic changes.

"Why are they doing this? This program is a gem," said Emily Goldberg, a parent of twins in the citywide autism program. "They should be showing it off."

Separate and mainstreamed

Currently, nearly 550 students are enrolled in the citywide autism program offered at several schools in the district. In the program, about four or five autistic students are assigned to a classroom with a specialized autism teacher, assistant teachers and aides. The children are also assigned to a mainstream classroom led by a teacher with experience teaching students with autism. The students often stay together from kindergarten to fifth grade.

Parents say that has helped them develop friends and become more confident around students who do not have autism. The mainstream teachers also know what may trigger a meltdown for each student and know when a child needs to take a break.

"They know them inside and out," said Bryan Barnes, whose son is at the Lake Nokomis-Keewaydin program.

District officials say they want to free up more resources to serve students in their community schools, and federal law requires the district to serve students in the least restrictive way possible. They say the change will allow more inclusion into mainstream classrooms across all schools.

'This is not uncommon'

District officials say the citywide program is not going away, but those kindergartners enrolled in the program next year are almost exclusively students with severe needs.

"I acknowledge parents' concerns," said chief academic officer Susanne Griffin. "These are their children. They want the best for them."

Griffin said that decisions to close classrooms are made all the time. "This is not uncommon." The district does not need a board vote to make these changes because it is not a matter of policy.

Parents say enrolling students in a community school always has been an option, and by not offering the program to incoming kindergartners, ­parents are losing choices.

At a recent private meeting with district officials, several parents expressed their frustration, sometimes tearfully, over how the district has grouped autistic students with other special education students.

Some said they tried to put their children into their community school when they first enrolled in kindergarten and were classified as Level 1. But the children often regressed so badly that they eventually needed to be placed into a more intensive program.

Parents warned that the district will be seeing this more if students and parents are not given the option to go to a ­specific program.

"You're desperate to believe that the easier option will work," one parent told district officials. "We know the students need the same consistency that these programs have offered."

Klukas, who is an administrator at another school district, said her move to the Lake Nokomis-Wenonah attendance area means that her son will be in a school that will have the infrastructure and support to serve his needs.

"Even if they aren't calling it the citywide program, they have the teachers and the rooms and support needed to serve my son," Klukas said. "This is where he needs to be."

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028