Milford School District is working on plans to expand the autism program at Milford Central Academy. The district already has solid programs at Evelyn I. Morris Early Childhood Center and Lulu M. Ross Elementary Schools. At the end of each school year, the district receives a programmatic rating scale that compares them to national programs for those on the autism spectrum and the district scores well, making progress over the past few years in those evaluations.
“We are in a pivotal point in our program, and we did a pretty large roll up of students this year who need autism programming this year,” Dr. Laura Menges, Director of Student Services, said. “This year, through a combination of what has transpired through COVID, as well as limited space and our hybrid opportunities, we have kind of hobbled through the school year, knowing we need to plan the roll up for the programmatic expansion at MCA next year for the sheer number of students we will be supporting in that building. We have held a series of meetings over the past several months to begin to be sure we have everything in place for our families to feel confident in the expansion as well as to have people trained.”
Dr. Manges explained that the district was reviewing teacher certifications as well as hiring practices and training that will need to be in place, including Applied Behavior Analysis training, in order to expand services at MCA. The district is also aware that MCA already struggles with overcrowding in the building, requiring Dr. Manges, Principal Gary Zoll, Supervisor of Operations Mike Sharp and Superintendent Dr. Kevin Dickerson to begin looking at the building to determine where at least four autism-dedicated classrooms may be located.
“It is not just classrooms,” Dr. Manges said. “We are also looking at structuring the environment throughout the building. We need to ensure that all staff support these children and that they can adequately support them. When you bring in such a large number of children with unique needs, it is critical that the entire building is prepared. We have been working with Mr. Lobiondo to do an expansion of training opportunities for drivers in the secondary buildings. We will also do training of the entire staff to include the cafeteria, hallways and counselors to be sure everyone is ready.”
The district has offered parent clinics that will help manage students with disabilities who are now experiencing adolescence. Those clinics will continue and be offered intermittently next fall and into the spring. The clinics are offered during the day to parents who have the ability to attend during the day as well as in the evening to help with the range of parent schedules in the district. It is a big undertaking at MCA, but they are doing it with excitement.”
Board Vice-President Rony Baltazar-Lopez confirmed that the district has 801 students who have been identified as needing special education. Dr. Manges stated that there were 56 of those students who received services outside of the district and 100 of them had been placed on the autism spectrum.
“The increase of programs who are having special needs met within the district has reduced the cost of sending students outside the district for services,” Baltazar-Lopez said. “That’s something we have understood throughout time, but many parents and special education coordinators agree that providing special education services within the district for students with special needs is not just cost effective, but it is the moral thing to do. But I think we need to be sure those programs are meeting the needs of our special education students, including those on the spectrum as well as students of color with an IEP. How many of our teachers are certified to teach autistic students?”
Dr. Manges explained that it is not a state requirement that teachers have specific autism certification. She stated that they must be certified in the area of special education and that the district had been bringing opportunities to the teachers in order to expand their special education certification in order for them to have more specialized certification in the area of autism. She also explained that it had only been in the last six or seven years that Delaware had an autism certification and that teachers simply needed to be certified in special education.
Baltazar-Lopez also asked about the ratio between paraprofessionals and students with autistic needs, stating that it was his understanding that an autistic child needed one-on-one additional support.
“That is based totally on need,” Dr. Manges said. “When you spoke to the moral compass of our purpose in public education, one-on-one support may not be necessary for all students. It is completely based on their IEP. The state has discouraged us from what you call the “one-on-one” setting as it requires another individual to be responsible for the child’s progress. Instead, the guidance is to look at the specific needs of a child and then speak to the plan. They also require that whenever we put someone exclusively with a child, we have to look for opportunities for the child to gain independence and start to pull back. Then, if we don’t have data to support that the independence is successful, we push back in.”
The district also works with Deveraux Alternative Education to provide training for teachers, paraprofessionals and bus drivers so that they understand the special needs of children on the autism spectrum.