Education

MCSD has $5.5M plan to improve special education. Here’s a preview.

Teacher debunks special-education misconception

Gentian Elementary School special-education teacher Colleen Tighe is the Muscogee County School District's 2017 First-Year Teacher of the Year.
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Gentian Elementary School special-education teacher Colleen Tighe is the Muscogee County School District's 2017 First-Year Teacher of the Year.

Twenty-one months after a split Muscogee County School Board rejected the superintendent’s controversial recommendation to hire a private, for-profit company to provide alternative-education services, the administration is presenting another proposal to improve how it serves students with special needs.

Muscogee County School District officials will conduct two public forums this week to discuss what MCSD calls its “Special Needs Behavior Supports Services Proposal.” The sessions will be Wednesday and Thursday, from 6 to 7 p.m., in the Muscogee County Public Education Center’s boardroom, 2960 Macon Road.

MCSD communications director Mercedes Parham confirmed to the Ledger-Enquirer that the proposal is based on the information officials shared with board members during their retreat this month. “However,” she said, “there will be modifications to that presentation.”

Parham declined to specify those modifications, but here’s a summary of what the administration presented to the board.

According to the information presented, the new proposal calls for improving special-needs education by increasing the Behavior Supports Program’s staff instead of hiring an outside contractor. The projected staffing costs would add $3,967,463 to the annual budget, increasing the program’s current staffing costs from $1,556,047 to $5,523,510.

That money would expand MCSD’s continuum of services for the Behavior Supports Program from two alternatives to five. Instead of educating these special-needs students in either a self-contained class at a regular school or in the GNETS program, MCSD would add three other options:

Interrelated Special Education Supports, which provides targeted student and teacher support in a co-taught general education setting.

Specialized Hybrid Transitional Class, designed to integrate students back into a co-taught classroom.

Therapeutic Day School, a separate facility for students who aren’t succeeding in the other options.

So the extra money would change the BSP program’s staff in the following ways:

From no building administrator to one.

From no program manager to one.

From no lead board certified behavior analyst to one.

From one board certified behavior analyst to six.

From no licensed mental health providers to nine.

From no school psychologist to one.

From 15 certified special-education teachers to 30.

From no registered behavior technicians to 20.

From 30 paraprofessionals to 20.

From no clerk to one.

This new proposal isn’t the all-encompassing alternative education plan that was in the recommendation to hire Camelot, which comprised students with disabilities and students with severe discipline problems. This new proposal covers only students with disabilities who exhibit extreme behavioral skill deficits. The students with severe discipline problems would remain in the AIM (Achievement, Integrity and Maturity) program at the Marshall Learning Center.

During the summer of 2016, MCSD’s Woodall Center, which served approximately 40 students with severe special needs, was among nine of the 24 programs in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support ordered by the Georgia Board of Education to be closed because they were determined to be unsafe and unhealthy.

In a called meeting Aug. 1, 2016, the MCSD board unanimously approved Lewis’ recommendation to comply with the state’s order and immediately move the students from Woodall to a dedicated wing at Davis Elementary School.

On Sept. 12, 2016, a 13-year-old boy allegedly was body-slammed five times by a contracted behavior specialist at the alternative school for students with severe discipline violations. The student, Montravious Thomas, allegedly suffered injuries from that incident resulting in his right leg being amputated below the knee. A $25 million lawsuit filed by his mother is pending in Muscogee County State Court.

Video and an incident report were leaked to All on Georgia by “sources in the school system” and posted on the site.

At a specially called meeting March 16, 2017, superintendent David Lewis presented his request to hire Texas-based Camelot Education for $6.4 million annually to run three alternative education programs. The plan called for closing the Edgewood Student Services Center, which housed the AIM program that Montravious attended the day he was injured, and reopen the vacant Marshall Middle School to create the Marshall Learning Center.

That center would have housed the AIM program, the Woodall program and a new program called Excel Academy, designed for over-age students in grades 6-12 who academically had fallen behind their peers.

But in a 4-5 vote May 15, 2017, the board rejected the Camelot proposal after local folks had read a story titled “That Place Was Like a Prison” on the website Slate.com. The story reported allegations of Camelot employees abusing students with overly aggressive discipline in five other cities. Camelot has disputed the allegations.

Camelot Education president and CEO Todd Bock, after Tuesday's forum in the Muscogee County Public Education Center, responds to accusations that staff members have abused students while restraining them.

Since then, MCSD moved the AIM program to Marshall anyway. And during its November 2018 meeting, the board voted 6-0 to sell Edgewood to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Chattahoochee Valley for $850,000.

The number of MCSD students in special-education classes has more than doubled in the past three years, from 62 in 2015-16 to 137 in 2018-19, and the number of special-education classes has increased from nine to 15 during that time span. In its report to the board MCSD cited a 2016 story on National Public Radio that says one in five students shows signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder in a given year, yet nearly 80 percent of those students who need mental health services don’t receive them.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.


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