ADAMS TWP — Parents of special education students asked Mars Area School Board to consider the future of the program at Tuesday night's board meeting.
Parent Julia Konitzky told district officials about an invitation-only “town hall” she hosted with district parent Amber Rush.
Konitzky said most board members declined her invitation to join district parents at the Dec. 30 meeting.
Konitzky has two children with individualized education programs who attend Mars schools.
She told the Eagle she helped arrange the gathering to give parents an opportunity to discuss the needs of the district's special education program.
“To get together,” Konitzky said. “Support one another. Share resources.”
Konitzky said the meeting aimed to bring together families directly affected by the district's special education program. The board was invited to the event as well as district parents.
She told the Eagle she received a reply from the board declining her invitation, citing its inability to gather at a meeting that wasn't advertised or open to the public.
Responding to questions from the Eagle after Tuesday night's meeting, board President John Kennedy said he advised members not to attend the meeting to avoid any violations of school board responsibilities.
“We couldn't have more than four board members attend,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said he left the decision to go up to each board member. Newly elected board member Megan Lenz attended.
Konitzky told the Eagle before the meeting she asked to be on the agenda Tuesday. Her request was denied.
Kennedy acknowledged the board's decision to deny Konitzky a spot on the agenda.
He explained proper procedure would be for Konitzky — or any parent — to bring concerns to teachers. Teachers would then pass issues to the program director. The program director would pass them to administration, which would present any problems to the board.
The process organizes and screens fi xable issues, according to Kennedy.
“There's a protocol,” Kennedy said. “Because if not, then we have parents bringing stuff directly to the board.”
Konitzky was permitted to speak in public comment.
Speaking as a former nurse, Konitzky said Tuesday she knows how important compliance monitoring can be in moving an organization forward.
She offered district parents — specifi cally those on a newly formed advisory committee — as entities who can help with things such as compliance monitoring.
“Think of us as the QI — quality improvement — committee of the school,” Konitzky said.
Konitzky shared a list of concerns raised during the Dec. 30 meeting.
Chief among them, according to Konitzky, is a lack of resources, such as mental health services, special education teachers and paraprofessionals.
Additionally, she said parents believe the district is not poised to set measurable goals within the program.
“I believe the budget is driving some of the decisions made here,” Konitzky said. “Not the students' needs.”
Other concerns Konitzky listed included inadequate resources for handling different levels of special needs.
Konitzky argued classrooms that mix students with more severe needs and students with less severe needs all the time can't provide proper instruction for either.
Amber Rush has a child in first grade with dyslexia. She told the board her child's teacher is responsible for designing curriculum specific to him on top of her regular curriculum load.
“We're short on resources,” Rush said. “The teachers have to come up with everything on their own.”
Rush said she called eight unspecified districts to see if teachers are having the same experience in other areas. She reported the eight districts all have curriculum in place.
Superintendent Wesley Shipley argued district teachers are capable of providing different curriculum for different levels of student needs.
“(They) do and can meet students where they are,” Shipley said.
“IEP accommodations are not being met,” Konitzky said. “(And) there's no protected way to voice concerns.”
Student speaks up
The public didn't voice concerns alone Tuesday night. The district is expanding resources in certain areas. For some students, the effort is palpable.
First-grader Ty Rush — who is Amber Rush's son — spoke up in public comment to praise the board for recent efforts taken to educate the district on dyslexic needs.
“I have dyslexia,” Ty said. “And I thank you because (you're) doing your best to try to help every kid (who) has dyslexia.”
Ty is specifically excited about a dyslexia program being held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 20 in the Mars High School LGI.
The program is run by the Pittsburgh Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. It will include a dyslexia simulation to show visitors how the disorder affects students.
Ty said being dyslexic is challenging. “When you get dyslexia, there's nothing to get rid of it,” Ty said. “You have it for your whole life.”
He's pleased the district is taking steps to understand students like him.
“He's a very good advocate,” his mother said.
Visitors are required to preregister for the Jan. 20 event at https://forms.gle/RvPfvvpfihnm5mqe6. Those who plan to attend should arrive at the LGI room by 5:45 p.m.
“Our special education program has grown significantly over the last two years,” Shipley told the Eagle. “With the development of more comprehensive programs for students with special needs.”
Dana Briggs has a child in first grade who is in an autistic support group. A support room recently designed in the primary center for students has been successful, according to Briggs.
“It's like night and day for my kid this year,” Briggs said. “It's probably the best thing that could ever happen.”
Briggs asked the board if it is considering funding for additional autistic support rooms in other district buildings as it works on the budget. The rooms provide resources for students who need assistance in learning.
“It's just a whole different system than just learning support,” Briggs said. “It's just very different.”
Shipley told Briggs it's still early in the budgeting process.
“But our growth at the elementary level and our growth in the special education departments are being considered,” Shipley said.
Following the meeting, Kennedy explained the budgeted process also has a hierarchy. Administration makes budgeting suggestions to the board based on suggestions presented by program directors.
For special education, director Travis Mineard would provide suggestions.
“The director will bring (forward) things that he feels he might need,” Kennedy said.
Bed of roses
Konitzky asked the board to consider holding a public forum specific to special education. This would provide an opportunity for district staff, families and school board officials to share information and open communication channels.
“I'm asking the board to have a town-hall meeting,” Konitzky said. “I think the board members need to get a clear understanding of what's going on with 20 percent of our school children.”
Shipley told the Eagle communication channels are open as the program continues to be assessed and expanded.
“This is an ongoing process in which the state (has) been intimately involved,” Shipley said.
Konitzky asked the board to consider forming a subcommittee focused on special education.
She suggested one or two board members could act as a liaison between the parent advisory committee and the board.
Kennedy told the Eagle the program is and should be run by “professionals” in charge, like Mineard.
“That's his job,” Kennedy said. “You get more done if you're letting the professionals do their job.”
Overall, Konitzky expressed her concern for the future of the program.
“The state of special ed is far from … roses,” Konitzky said. “I think we can do better as a district.”
The board thanked Konitzky and Rush for their comments.
“I think the program has taken huge steps in the past year and a half,” Kennedy told the Eagle.
“We will continue to raise the bar for this program moving forward,” Shipley said.
A call made by the Eagle to Mineard was not returned at the time this story was written.