CONTRIBUTORS

Thanks to embattled superintendent, Rockland-area district ‘finally letting me know that it values my child’

Heather Nelson's son, Brian Farnham, 9, of Rockland, is pictured this Christmas.
Contributed photo
Heather Nelson's son, Brian Farnham, 9, of Rockland, is pictured this Christmas.
Posted Jan. 03, 2014, at 7:45 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 03, 2014, at 11:26 a.m.

Lew Collins, the superintendent of Rockland-area RSU 13, has just put in his resignation following months of discord and disagreement within the district. Parents and teachers alike have been frustrated with changes and what they feel as deception made by this superintendent. I agree with many of the issues at hand and have had my own disagreements with the superintendent.

However, as a parent of a child with autism in this school district, I can’t help but worry about what will happen with Collins’ absence.

My son is 9 years old and has been a student of the RSU 13 school system for four and a half years. He has autism and requires a specific and intensive educational system. I have been fighting with the school system all of those years to ensure he got the education he deserved under federal regulations such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

I won’t sugarcoat it: I was completely unhappy with what the district offered to my child every year. I had to get lawyers involved, and I had to fight. It was a full-time job just to make sure the program was following his individualized education plan. I once had an evaluator, one employed by our district, describe my son’s program as nothing more than a day care.

Last spring, as my husband and I were pouring over classified ads to move to another school district, the new superintendent promised us that we would be overwhelmingly pleased with the autism program he was envisioning for the fall. He sold his dream to us; it sounded perfect. We took a chance and decided to stick it out one more year.

I’m so happy we did. The autism program at the South School in Rockland is finally just that — an autism program. The space itself is much larger than the room our children were shoved into in past years. They’ve built and designed it to be conducive to learning and to safety. Corners are rounded; windowsills can’t be climbed; and there are individual learning cubbies, so the children can learn without distractions.

The program is equipped with behavioral assistant technicians for every child. These professionals had extensive training over the summer learning about applied behavioral analysis and how to implement it. They are supervised by a certified special education teacher, and the entire program is supervised by a board certified behavioral analyst. The program has adopted an amazing curriculum, Autism Curriculum Encyclopedia. They are consulting with an alternative augmentative communication specialist, so our kids will have more ways to access communication. The staff is able to get training to stay on top of the extensive needs of our children.

In all the years my son has been in school, the education technicians who were responsible for him never got to go to autism-specific training. The program is even more wonderful because it is in the public school setting where “typical” children can come in and be peer leaders. My child is learning from your children how to socialize. And your children are learning from my child how to be compassionate and empathetic.

I had the pleasure of speaking with other parents within the program a couple of weeks ago. One mother whose son just joined the program this fall said his language has grown so much and can now count to 50. Another mother said her son no longer has tantrums every morning when it is time to go to school. My own son has decreased his self-injurious behaviors, is working with a new system to help him communicate, and has been making some real social gains.

Do all of these wonderful things come free? Of course not. However, the cost to the district of having to outsource my child to a private school for children with autism would be much higher than the cost of running this program. I fully believe that this program, within a couple of years, will be able to bring back all of our children with autism who are being outsourced at this moment. I even believe it could become the district where other school districts send their children if they don’t have adequate resources.

Unfortunately over the years, I’ve heard a lot of negative comments about children like mine and what they deserve or do not deserve. The bottom line is that they deserve a chance.

Collins believed in that chance, despite any other shortcomings. RSU 13 was finally letting me know that it values my child and is giving him that chance. There will be tough decisions facing our school board and our incoming superintendent, and I really hope that this worthy program doesn’t end up on the chopping block once again.

I hope my fellow parents and educators can see the importance of helping all of our students, even those who may not be “valuable” to some. As Mohandas Gandhi once said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

Heather Nelson of Rockland is an occupational therapy assistant and has two sons, one with autism. She is a contributing author to the book “Wit and Wisdom from the Parents of Special Needs Kids.”

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