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Autism program may move this fall

The Cherry Hill School District currently educates about 11,500 students. And each year, the district takes a look at how it can best accommodate those students.

Recently, a group of parents with students at Bret Harte were called and told the Autism Program would be moving to Horace Mann next fall, said Kelli Brack, the mother of a fourth-grader in the self-contained Autism class at Harte.

Her fear – and it’s one she said she shares with many other parents at the school – is that their children will not be able to graduate from the same elementary school they’ve spent the last four years in, working closely with the same autistic support staff.

The teachers would also move to the new school next fall if the district decides to move the program, but its fate looms large.

“Autistic children require routine, structure and sameness to succeed in any environment, but especially within the demands of the classroom. Just having a substitute teacher causes disruption, behaviors to resurface and distraction, that is very, very difficult to manage, let alone teach through,” Brack said. “Moving to an entirely new building, surrounded by strange students and strange teachers, and still expecting the autistic students to perform and group is a recipe for disaster.”

After hearing the concerns of parents at Bret Harte, school district officials invited parents to a curriculum and instruction meeting, a smaller meeting of administrators, focused on discussing specific curriculum items, which are open to the public.

John Moody, the district’s supervisor of special education, presented two options to parents at the meeting for a possible shift in special education classrooms at the elementary level.

Currently, the district provides 895 students at the elementary level with some form of special needs support, said Susan Bastnagel, the district’s public information officer.

One option is to shuffle special education programs to different school building throughout the district in 2012-2013. Beck Middle School would house the middle school Behavior and Emotional Support program; Rosa International Middle School would house the middle school Autism program; Bret Harte would house the elementary Behavior and Emotional Support program; and Horace Mann and Kingston would house the elementary Autism program.

The first option includes moving the BES program from Kilmer to Harte and the Autism program from Harte to Mann.

A number of parents voiced their concern at the meeting, saying they were not in favor of moving their children from school to school, and adding multiple, challenging transitions along the way.

Dr. Marianne Gaffney, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, told parents in attendance no final decision had been made to move students.

“A lot of careful thought went into our original planning,” Gaffney said.

She said the administration should have a decision made before the end of April.

About Melissa DiPento

If it happens in Cherry Hill, I want to know about it. I'm a South Philly resident/South Jersey suburbanite and will see the story first-hand, even if that means riding my single-speed bike along Route 70. I especially enjoy writing about politics and sustainability.View all posts by Melissa DiPento