Advocates for students with disabilities call on schools for more support

By Haley Thomas, contributor

While Harrisonburg City Public School leaders have said they try to build inclusive learning environments for students with disabilities, several city residents at Tuesday’s meeting told school board members that there’s still room for growth.

Heather Russell, a special education teacher at Waterman Elementary School, opened public comment with a recent “success story.” She said one of her students in a wheelchair moved to a new seat and a classmate immediately asked Russell, “Will her wheelchair fit under the table? If not, we need to change the table.”

“Our students are very adaptable and capable of including all in the classroom,” Russell said. “And now, our challenge is making sure that all adults are able to do the same thing.”

Russell said the city has been failing students with disabilities, citing a lower graduation rate than that for other students. She added that data on inclusion shows students with disabilities are more likely to graduate and work post-graduation if they learn in a general education classroom as opposed to a separate “special education” classroom.

Russell asked the board to embed time into special education teachers’ schedules for planning and collaborating with co-teachers, as well as hire more teachers and assistants in the classroom. She said she believes the city is making steps in the right direction and hopes that continues. 

Harper Gibson, a student at HCPS, said she believes students with disabilities belong in the same classroom as all other students. 

“We’re all students and we all have emotions,” Gibson said. “We should receive the same treatment whether we have disabilities or not.”

Shonda Green, mother of two students in the city schools, said there “continues to be a lack of support from some of the district teachers and administrators” when it comes to inclusion. 

Green said some staff members tend to separate students with disabilities from the other students. 

“There are staff that embrace change and fully support inclusion. Sadly, there is a higher population of staff that are not supportive at all,” Green said. She said that as a parent of a child with autism, she’s experienced this, and “it seems they believe their support is optional.”

But Green said she connected with supportive staff and advocated for her son, who’s “shown great progress” since being moved from a “self-contained classroom” — separated from other classrooms and led by a special education teacher — and moved into a general education classroom. 

“I charge the school board to change the narrative of the current culture regarding inclusion within HCPS,” Green said. “Consideration should be made as to what staff is a good fit and what staff should move on.”

Kathleen Gibson, mother of three students in HCPS, said she also wanted to bring perspective as a parent of a child with a disability. 

“Change is rarely easy, and work is hard, but what kind of community do we want to live in?” Gibson asked the board through tears. “I want a community that will accept, welcome and support our kids…One where we all belong and our differences and perspectives are valued.”

Richards thanked the speakers and said inclusivity has been at the forefront of the district’s goals, and he’s aware that there’s still progress to make.

“We believe in what you’re saying in terms of students in the general education curriculum and receiving the services they need, as opposed to being ‘special education’ students,” Richards said, gesturing with air quotes when he said the words “special education.” “It is quite an endeavor, and we’re going to continue in that direction.”

Board moves ahead with changes to public comment policy

The board unanimously approved the first reading of policy revisions to the board’s rules governing public comments at meetings.

Key revisions include dividing public comment into two sections — one between the information items and action items sections of the meetings for comments on agenda items only, and the other near the end of the meeting for other comments unrelated to agenda items. Another revision requires speakers to register in advance for public comment, either electronically on the board’s website or in person before the meeting begins. 

The board plans to vote on the policy’s final approval at the March 21 meeting. Any revisions to those rules, known as “Policy 507,” would go into effect starting with the board’s April 4 meeting, at the earliest. 

Public comment during the board’s business meetings has ranged from constructive to contentious in recent months. While all board members agreed at the Feb. 7 meeting that public comment was a necessity, board members said certain policy changes could make it more productive. 

The board addressed “Policy 507: Public Participation at School Board Meetings” for the third time at Tuesday’s business meeting after reworking substantive and minor phrasing elements of the policy. 

“We’re not pretending, we’re not blindsiding,” said Andy Kohen, the board’s vice chair who presided over the meeting for chair Deb Fitzgerald, who was absent. “We’re trying to be as open and transparent about this policy as we possibly can.”

Board member Kristen Loflin said she agreed that it was a priority for the board to allow for public input. 

“I’ve taken a lot of time to be intentional about this…we want people to come and comment,” board member Kristen Loflin said. “We want people to share their experiences, and if we find that something does not work…we can go back and look at it again.”

Leaders lay groundwork for school space study

Given the city’s recent focus on affordable housing, Superintendent Michael Richards said it’s time to “think about the future,” in terms of how many students these new developments will bring to the district. 

He called for conducting a “space study” that uses both retrospective and forward-looking data to predict student growth. The solution, he said, could be an addition to an existing school or, as a “last resort,” buying land to build a new school.

Richards said because a majority of the district’s six elementary schools are already on the verge of overcrowding, he’s anticipating rezoning at some point in the future. 

Loflin said both the city’s middle schools are also crowded.

“If you’ve been at the middle schools during class change, you would know that they are full,” Loflin said. “It is a busy, busy place. It doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot of room for, you know, an extra 100 students in there.” 

Board member Tom Domonoske said the school board and city council must first agree on a data collection method that would garner the most accurate estimate for future enrollment. 

“I don’t want us to spend a whole bunch of time…coming up with a recommendation [for funding] and then being told by city council ‘go use different numbers and re-do it,’” Domonoske said, emphasizing the need for an “agreement ahead of time on the methodology to come up with the numbers.” 

Andy Kohen agreed and added that it was important to involve the liaison committee made up of two school board members and two city council members.

Richards said he believes the best method for data collection is through triangulation, which he defined as “not a matter of finding the right numbers, it’s a matter of finding a group of numbers that are generated from valid and sound research that ends up being something [the board] can use to make the best estimate.”

“We know there’s going to be growth,” Kohen said, “and we need to start planning for it now.”

The board members unanimously voted to continue the discussion with staff members and come up with a solution that will arrive before the influx of students.

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