During a public forum about alternative education Tuesday night, parents of special-needs students shared their stories of struggling with the Muscogee County School District to provide better services for their children.
Approximately 20 folks not associated with the Muscogee County School Board or the media gathered in the Mildred L. Terry Public Library and heard Camelot Education officials describe how the private, for-profit company based in Austin, Texas, would fill that gap.
The Southern Anti-Racism Network hosted the forum along with Camelot, which would receive $6.4 million annually to run three alternative education programs for MCSD if the board approves the proposal that it tabled for three months with a 5-3 vote last week.
“We will not be discussing the issue of the vote or the proposal,” said SARN regional director Theresa El-Amin. “… We want this to really be about the concerns of the parents. I feel their voices haven’t been heard enough.”
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This forum focused exclusively on one of the three programs Camelot would provide MCSD, a therapeutic day school for special-needs students. The two other programs, one for students who have severe violations of the district’s behavior code and the other for over-age and under-credited students, weren’t addressed Tuesday night.
Lisa Jenkins, co-founder of the parent coalition called Anchors for Autism, said her son George couldn’t talk, barely could walk and used to beat his head thousands of times per week. She said she sued MCSD after finding her son strapped to a chair in a classroom in 2008.
After a “very long, very expensive process, five years, three courts,” she said, George, 15, is in a self-contained classroom and receiving the services he needs and she sought.
“That is my whole goal for every child in Muscogee County,” she said. “… There’s more needed for the children, and that’s why I think (MCSD superintendent David Lewis) has brought Camelot on board.”
Carolyn Edwards Golden said she took her daughter out of an MCSD school in third grade to homeschool her because “I was very disturbed at what I saw.” Her daughter was the only black girl in a class with boys of other races, she said.
The teacher and principal denied her stuttering daughter the speech therapy she requested, Golden said. “The response was that it wouldn’t help her if we did that,” she said. “In my opinion, that meant someone’s mind already was made up that she couldn’t learn. I couldn’t accept that.”
Homeschooling her daughter, Golden said, helped her realize she could thrive if she received one-on-one instruction. “There’s no doubt in my mind what was in her head,” she said. “As long as she was in school, I questioned exactly what she was getting. When I did go to her class, she was sitting in front of a computer. … I was very pleased with myself as her parent because I found out what she could do, which was more than the school district said she could do.”
Now, her daughter is 23, graduated from homeschool and taking sign language classes, Golden said. “You can discover whatever it is that makes your child tick,” she said. “You can find that buried treasure.”
Jennifer Le Denny said she left her job as a correctional officer in 2014 to have more time to advocate for her 2-year-old son with autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. “He would scream the whole 45-minute drive to child care and beat his head against the wall,” she said. “It just had to stop.”
When her son was old enough to attend MCSD, Le Denny said, he was initially refused autism eligibility until she finally prevailed after a year of contention. “We didn’t have to sue,” she said. “Thank you, Jesus.”
Her son now is in the proper class, Le Denny said, and no longer self-harms. “You can see how intelligent he is,” she said. “… He has just blossomed.”
Le Denny advised other parents of special-needs students to “fight hard for your children” not only for their sake but also because “you will pave the way for other children. … The school district isn’t evil. I did think that at one time. But if you make them – even if you have to force them kicking and screaming – to see where you’re coming from … maybe you can actually make improvements throughout the school system.”
Quentin Mumphery, Camelot vice president for strategy and community engagement, welcomes such parent involvement. “No one is more invested in what’s going to happen for students than their parents,” he said. “That’s why tonight’s important. That’s why your stories are important.”
Debra Singley, principal of the Camelot Therapeutic Day School of the Quad Cities in Moline, Ill., said her 34 staff member are “constantly assessing” the 50 students. “When they walk in the door every morning, each one of my staff members is at the door meeting the kids. My staff members eat lunch with their students. My staff members all go to recess with their students. So there’s a big community affair.”
Singley said a kindergarten student came to her school last August, and she was told he needed to be strapped to a chair. “I didn’t need to buy a chair,” Singley said, “because Mathew was not in that chair in my school. We have wonderful 1-to-1 with Mathew, and we’re able to meet his needs.”
Singley’s school this week is enrolling a student who had been homeschooled for eight years, she said. The parent “came to visit my program, looked around and saw it and said, ‘I want him back in school.’”
If her staff members can’t handle a meltdown or other behaviors, Singley said, “we call in the experts, the board-certified analysts. … They’re always on call.”
ANOTHER EDUCATION FORUM THIS WEEK
It will be the kids’ turn to do most of the speaking and the grown-ups’ turn to do most of the listening.
The Columbus Youth Advisory Council is sponsoring a public forum billed as “A Candid Conversation with the Muscogee County School Board” on Thursday’s in Rothschild Leadership Academy, 1136 Hunt Ave., is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. and finish by 7:30 p.m.
“Nothing is off the table,” says the news release from the Muscogee County School District. “We encourage students to come out and tell us what’s on their minds.”
For more information, call the MCSD communications office at 706-748-2034.