Rather than “Autism program cuts rile parents” (June 22), how about this for a headline: “Brouhaha erupts over changes to special-education service delivery for fewer than 25 kindergartners”?

As a parent of a student with autism in the Minneapolis Public Schools, I was disappointed in the Star Tribune’s report about the changes to the program. For one thing, the autism program is not being eliminated. For another thing, not all parents are “riled.” Yes, changes are being made, but should they be greeted by a virtual hysteria?

No, and here’s why:

1) The changes are incremental. The vast majority of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) students currently in citywide programs will experience no significant changes. For those kindergartners who will be affected, the changes will mean that higher-functioning ASD students (federal setting levels 1 and 2) won’t have to be bused to a school different from their siblings’, and their parents won’t have to navigate two different school schedules. Their child will be in a school with his or her neighborhood peers and will continue to receive the services he or she needs based on their individualized education program (IEP). The relatively small number of families undergoing this change will make it easier for the district to provide the specialized ASD supports those students need in their new settings.

2) Some parents have requested this change for years. Many higher-functioning ASD students already attend community schools, and now the system can better support them. Less isolation and stronger connections to their own community, as well as better access to inclusion and appropriately challenging academics are all long-term positives for our kids.

3) This is not a money-saving move. Changes to the special-education system at MPS next year will not save the district money, but the hope is that it will improve outcomes for all special-ed students. Cost savings may occur down the line by better outcomes for level 1 and 2 students who hopefully won’t need more-intensive level 3 services.

4) The citywide programs have their history of problems. The concept of a program physically separate from the rest of the school arose out of the institutional model that predated the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In this environment, MPS developed a system in which students were directed to a certain school program based on their special-needs label, even if it was 45 minutes from their home, and even if labels didn’t describe the needs of the student very well. There was little attempt to integrate these children into the fabric of the schools. In fact, many of these programs were sited at underutilized, poorly performing schools. As soon as those schools were turned around and started attracting more students, the citywide special- ed programs were often jettisoned and attached to another underutilized, poorly performing school.

5) The citywide programs were never intended for levels 1 and 2 students. As ASD diagnoses changed and grew, the program did not shift with the changing population.

6) The “rules” needed to change. Not everyone was well-served. The special-ed graduation rate was 19 percent, and a depressingly high number of students were being served in segregated level 3 settings. Now, level 1 and 2 students who need special-ed assistant supports will get them, not because of which “program” they are in, but based on their IEP.

7) Resources should not be doled out inequitably to the “squeakiest wheels.” Savvy and connected teachers, administrators and parents were better at getting services for their students. Not surprisingly, others were less able to get their child’s needs met. This pattern has unquestionably contributed to poor outcomes for many of our more-disadvantaged special-needs students and to our large “achievement gap.”

8) Teachers are what matter. Despite an often unwieldy and not very equitable system, many great MPS teachers and staff rose above the nonsensical rules and managed to work wonders with some of our kids. My own kid’s success is not so much because he was in a particular “program” but because he had some fabulous teachers and staff along the way.

I get it that families with young children are worried. Navigating my son through the system, particularly when he was a little guy, was frightening, and I had no idea what to expect. I would urge parents to keep an open mind, do all they can to learn all sides of the story, think about the bigger picture and take a giant calming breath. I sincerely believe it really will be OK.


Margaret Sullivan is a Minneapolis Public Schools parent and co-chair of the district’s Special Education Advisory Council.