In the wake of a shift the last several weeks that included help from pro-bono counsel and a state advocate, and after more than 15 months of evaluations, meetings and frustration, Kelly Rawson, the mother of a 15-year-old Worcester Public Schools special-needs student, has finally reached an agreement that will give her son the educational services she’s long battled for.
Rawson said she was notified by the schools March 18 that officials now believe moving her son, Eugene “Gino” Berthiaume — who is deaf and suffers from developmental delays, epilepsy and cerebral palsy due to a virus contracted at birth — to a residential program at the Marie Jean Philip Elementary School at The Learning Center for Deaf Children, is the best course of action to address Gino’s educational needs.
Gino now attends a day program at the Framingham school through School Choice and is bused there by Worcester Public Schools. But for more than a year, he and his mother have waited for services proposed by the administration that have gone unfulfilled.
Rawson said she is waiting for a copy of the “proposed plan to make up compensatory time,” required by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which will facilitate Gino’s move to the more comprehensive program. “In that program [at the Philip School], the teachers and staff try to go above and beyond a child’s IEP [Individualized Education Program],” she said.
“And what the dorm program is designed for is independent living skills, safety awareness, self-care, navigating the community, working, and learning trades,” Rawson said. “This is what I’ve been pushing for, and the Worcester district has always said no.”
Gino, via American sign language through Rawson, said recently, “My school is fun. I really like it there.” The avid bowler and aspiring restaurateur said he’s looking forward to having access to after-school sports and clubs at the school. His options have been limited due to transportation burdens.
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“This is very exciting news because Gino will learn independent living skills, self care, safety and emergency responses, socialization and community involvement with instruction and support from trained deaf role models and peers,” Rawson said. “He will also have access to homework tutoring and will have appropriate chores to learn responsibilities around the home.”
Approving the dormitory, or residential, program, where Gino would stay Mondays through Thursdays, according to Rawson, will allow Worcester schools to make up for the services it failed to render the last 15 months when it recommended through Gino’s IEPs that he receive in-home and school-day services from applied behavioral and occupational therapists.
As recently as Jan. 8, as reflected in a copy of Gino’s latest IEP reviewed by the Sun, the schools maintained that therapist-augmented day services would suffice. This after an early December acknowledgement of IEP noncompliance to state education officials, which resulted in mandated proposals for corrective action.
The Jan. 8 IEP called for three 90-minute, at-home sessions per week with an ABA therapist. “The district continues to reject the parent request that Gino requires a residential program based on the fact that he’s making effective progress in a 6 hour day program and will also require home services,” the school wrote in the report.
Rawson said beginning in February she received assistance from an attorney from the Disability Law Center of Massachusetts and an advocate from the Massachusetts Commission for Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Both were contacted multiple times by the Sun but, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act [FERPA], declined to comment or be identified. Rawson also would not identify either individual.
School officials would not comment on what changed between Jan. 8 and March 18, citing FERPA and student privacy concerns. The school had yet to hire an ABA therapist, and finding one proficient in sign language, according to advocates and experts, could prove challenging.
“We need to make sure there’s a proactive approach, but we also need to be providing our teachers with the support in the specific areas where they’re not getting [it] to provide those services,” Worcester School Committee member Molly O. McCullough said.
“I hope there aren’t other similar scenarios, but if there are other students that are experiencing those things then we would want to know. We need to make sure that the people we are hiring are doing what they’re supposed to be doing on their end.
“There are a lot of responsibilities that come with those plans and we have to make sure that we are following through,” McCullough said. “If a service is required for a student, we have to do our best to make sure those services are provided.”
In response to why an IEP would be subjected to multiple changes within such a short period, Worcester Public Schools interim Superintendent Marco C. Rodrigues said in an email, “An IEP is a working document. Although it is reviewed and revised yearly, amendments to an IEP can occur at any time, and multiple times if necessary.
“The IEP must contain the support services necessary for a child to access the curriculum and the child’s needs may change during the course of the IEP. Any revision to an IEP must occur within a Team process.”
“The special education department operates on a very structured budget in terms of the allocations of resources to the special education department. It’s based on a budget that tries to meet all the needs of every student,” School Committee member Brian O’Connell said.
“With Worcester is being as expansive as it in size, first off the the department would like to see if they can meet the students needs with the resources within the staff that the district currently has before sending the child out of the district.”
O’Connell speculated that the school district simply exhausted all of its preferred options before settling on the residential program to fit the needs of all parties. “The effort to find that replacement reaches a tipping point when the child is still not thriving as the district would hoped and the district has to look at a more restrictive placement,” O’Connell said.
Gino is very active with the Special Olympics and participates in bowling, soccer and track and field. According to personal goals listed on his IEP, Rawson would like to see Gino continue to acquire life skills that will allow him to function with minimal assistance.
According to Rawson [and listed in Gino’s IEP], Gino has mentioned an interest working in the restaurant industry and he will take a culinary arts class as a sophomore in high school, which begins next fall.
With his occupational therapist, Gino works on bilateral kitchen tasks, using utensils and equipment, setting the table with proper place setting, and cutting all the food on his plate before eating.
The occupational therapist works with Gino for 30 minutes each week with a focus on self-care living skills including zippering his coat and tieing his shoes.
“Here we have a child that had a special education IEP and the district looked to see if they could meet the needs that would be normally addressed within the IEP based on what the confines of Worcester could actually provide,” O’Connell said.
“Sometimes the district reaches the point where the out of district placement — in this case, the dorm program — is really what the child needs.”
Rawson said the Learning Center will now create a new independent living skills goal to add to Gino’s IEP to be supported in the dorm program. No time frame has been set for when Gino will begin attending the program, but Rawson expects meetings to be held with the appropriate staff to begin the transition.
According to data from the Operational Services Division of the Massachusetts Executive Office for Administration and Finance, for a single student the annual tuition rate of the day program at the Philip School is $80,345.16, or $405.78 per day. When Gino attends the dorm program, that cost would rise to $88,000 annually, or $444.04 per day.
“As a district, we have high expectations for all our students and continue to develop internal practices and protocols to ensure that academic and support services are provided to all 25,000+ students each and every day,” Rodrigues said. “We strive to provide the best education possible with the resources available to us.”