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Buffalo, NY: 438 autistic students K-4th; 103 more than last year

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

Sept 1, 2023, Buffalo (NY) News: Hard transitions': Buffalo Schools' special education faces backlash over late-summer changes for students with autism

Kate Nowadly’s 5-year-old son with autism is nonverbal, with a tendency to run or climb anything in sight.

Marissa and Nathan Mieth said their son, Anthony, an elementary school student with autism, can throw tantrums and push over tables if his routine is disrupted.

Andrea Binner and Beatrice Vargas have sons who thrived as friends in a middle school program for high-functioning students with autism.

The four parents told The Buffalo News during the last two weeks that they were uncertain which Buffalo school their children will attend starting next week.

They are among more than 400 students with autism and other health challenges affected by changes Buffalo Public Schools implemented in July and August to address class size and structure for the 2023-24 school year. And they are among parents critical of district and special education department communication, timing and lack of compassion for a student population that by nature relies on regular routine….

Buffalo Schools spokesperson Jeffrey Hammond described the adjustments, one affecting elementary students and the other affecting high-schoolers.

For several years, classes for students with autism and sensory needs in kindergarten through fourth grade contained six students, one teacher and one paraprofessional – referred to as 6:1:1 classes.

This year, these classes have been eliminated and students previously enrolled will now attend classes comprising eight students, one teacher and one paraprofessional (8:1:1) – in different schools, in some cases – in order to “maximize resources and provide continuity for these students with their peers in grades five through 12,” Hammond said in an email.

In other words, Buffalo Schools has erased classrooms with the lowest student-to-teacher ratio for elementary students with autism. Any student who requires more individual attention would be referred to one of Buffalo’s agency partners outside the district. Several parents told The Buffalo News that those agencies – four of which either did not reply to a request for comment or declined comment – were full and could not accommodate more students due to staff shortages.

The event presents a place where children can play freely and safely under the watchful eyes of staff, while parents compare notes on how best to nurture and support those children – and Buffalo Schools’ Committee on Special Education (CSE) chairs have since late July contacted parents of affected students to amend student Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in order for them to be placed in a less restrictive setting. “This realignment will further foster the development of social skills while still being sensitive to students’ social needs,” Hammond said, using sensory integration and group work as examples.

Compared to 58 kindergarten-through-fourth-grade autism classes with a 6:1:1 setup last year, Buffalo will maintain 62 classes of the 8:1:1 structure this year.

Students with disabilities account for 18% of Buffalo’s 30,000 students, according to 2022 state data, and other special education classrooms for students without an autism diagnosis may include those with behavior and emotional needs.
The district will enroll 438 students with autism in kindergarten through fourth grade for the 2023-24 school year, Hammond said, an increase of 103 over the previous year. He did not say a lack of teachers prompted the elementary class structure change, but noted there is a shortage of about 20 high school special education teachers.

The high school change is more focused, but also invited strong parent backlash toward the district for its timing and lack of understanding of students with autism. One of two Frederick Law Olmsted 8:1:1 Students with Autism Rising to Success (STARS) classes, in which high-functioning students with autism work toward a number of diploma options, will shift to City Honors for the coming year.

Hammond said the curriculum remains the same at City Honors as Olmsted, and the purpose of the change is to “expand to two STARS classrooms per grade level” at City Honors over the coming years to accommodate a projected increase in students with autism. Frustration grows

The district has not discussed these changes at board meetings, on the school website or by messaging teachers. That lack of communication has rankled some key district figures.

“Making these changes over the summer – the optics of it look bad,” said Rich Nigro, new president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. After hearing concerns from several special education teachers, Nigro said he spoke to Kim Hoelscher, assistant superintendent of special education for Buffalo Schools, who told him teachers moving from 6:1:1 to 8:1:1 would receive greater support, including trainings, additional personnel and supplies.

“It’s not fair to parents,” said Ed Speidel, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council and co-chair of the Special Education Parents Advisory Committee, Buffalo district-recognized parent groups.

Speidel has communicated with several frustrated parents, but finding solutions has been tough. Those parents described their reactions as “disgusted,” “desperate,” “heartbroken” and “insulted,” he said.

“It took the footing right out from under us,” Marissa Mieth in early August.

Her son was slated for a 6:1:1 first-grade class at Lorraine Elementary until the South Buffalo family of eight learned Aug. 16 their son’s class had been dissolved. They were told there would be no elementary special education classrooms in South Buffalo, and that they’d have to choose between three schools in North Buffalo, about 20 minutes away. That was especially inconvenient, Nathan Mieth said, because the family had used its “sibling preference” to send another son to join Anthony at Lorraine.

“If we knew this was going to happen, our planning would have been very different,” Marissa Mieth said.

Buffalo school leaders have already begun damage control.

“In hindsight, I certainly wish we would have handled the rollout of this significant change very differently, but we are doing everything possible to ensure these students have a happy and successful year,” Superintendent Tonja M. Williams said last week.

Classroom challenges

The loudest complaints among elementary parents about eliminating 6:1:1 classes are the district’s highest-need students now have less individual attention and instruction, both academically and for their social-emotional growth. Teachers are worried about safety concerns stemming from more high-need students in a classroom – some with potentially aggressive behaviors – with less supervision.

“The 6s struggled last year,” said an elementary teacher for students with autism, who asked not be identified because of fears of district retaliation. “Teachers were hurt or on leave. How will a move to 8:1:1 make it better for teachers, but more so for kids?”

The teacher described significant variance in autism classes. Some elementary students, she said, are nonverbal, unable to feed themselves or use the bathroom alone, and might need a baby bottle in kindergarten. Other students seem on the verge of comfort in a regular classroom.

That teacher understands least-restrictive settings – like the integrated co-teaching model – are the ultimate goal, but students with greater needs may not thrive there yet. “Not everyone benefits from a larger setting,” the teacher said.

Nowadly’s son, who is nonverbal and entering kindergarten, is an example. Nowadly said the evaluation meeting for her son’s IEP – held before any district change – indicated he was best suited for an agency or 6:1:1, public school classroom because “he’d get more personal attention, more personal care and more hands.”

She tried to communicate with the special education department starting in February to find an agency for her son, but by the time she received a reply, she said, agencies were full. The 6:1:1 classes were eliminated shortly afterward.

“I’m begging them to look at my kid and then try to not care at all,” Nowadly said.

Parents and teachers are concerned how the district amended IEPs – legally binding documents – over the summer, months after determinations were made in annual review meetings between students, parents and student support staff.

Theresa Veprek, director of program operations for the Parent Network of WNY, said her organization has fielded calls from parents confused by abrupt changes in placement. Veprek said she encourages parents to ask the special education department what developments have happened since the review that would suggest the student would be suited for a less-restrictive setting. If parents agree to an 8:1:1 placement, she said they can request a personal aide or more adult support. “Parents don’t always understand their rights,” she said.

The elementary teacher said it’s crucial the district supply communication tools to help students in 8:1:1 rooms, and is confident in her ability to adjust to the new classroom size due to previous experience in agencies. “I’m somebody who has a background, but if you don’t, I don’t know what you’d do.”

An unwanted move

Charlie Binner and Timothy Anderson Jr. were eighth-grade students with autism at Olmsted who visited Darien Lake this spring with their classmates to celebrate middle-school graduation.

“They worked really hard to become friends and learn the skills to make and keep friends,” said Charlie’s mother, Andrea. Timothy’s mother said the students relished their Class of ‘27 Olmsted shirts.

Timothy Vargas, a high-functioning student with autism, has been forced by Buffalo Schools to move out of his comfort zone at Frederick Law Olmsted.

The district’s decision to move one of two STARS classes out of Olmsted shattered those plans, leaving the friends with no guarantee they’d be together. Andrea Binner learned at an orientation Aug. 18 at Olmsted her son’s class was no more, that they would have to choose another school. “I’m trying to figure out how to make it through the next two minutes without a panic attack,” she recalled of her reaction.

Both parents acknowledge City Honors has a strong academic reputation, but the hard work of adjusting had already been done at Olmsted. The two students grew especially close to school social worker Joel Russell, “one of the most compassionate people I have ever met,” Binner said.

The two mothers, and parents of other students in the class, are fighting back against the district’s decision. Instead of accepting the placement at City Honors, Vargas said she’s putting her son in a lottery that could land him back in Olmsted. “Where’s the compassion? Where’s the understanding?” Vargas asked. She’s beginning to see her son reverse some of his progress.

“All of the kids are going to go backwards,” Vargas said. “The behaviors have already started back up.”

The unknowns for the students with autism dwarf their parents’ worries.

“I’m concerned that the students that have the hardest time with transition,” Binner said, “are being asked to transition to a whole new school with very little prep.”


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