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Families of special education students rally for inclusion

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Rebecca Cobos, deputy director of special services at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, addresses the Roswell Independent School District board of education on Dec. 10 regarding inclusion of students with disabilities. (Alison Penn Photo)

Some parents, a sibling of a student and an advocate emphasized the responsibility of the Roswell Independent School District (RISD) to continue to support and include special education students.

The speakers signed up to address the RISD school board before its meeting on Dec. 10. All speakers had one common concern, that special needs students have the same rights to education as general education students, as required by law.

Board members James Edwards, Mona Kirk, Vice President Ruben Sanchez, President Alan Gedde, and Secretary Dr. Kathleen Pittman were present for the meeting. Incoming board members Hilda Sanchez and Hope Morales were also present.

No formal action was taken by the board on the matter, since it took place during public comments and inquiries.

Inclusion

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Superintendent Dr. Ann Lynn McIlory ensured the parents that RISD would continue to provide an equitable education to those with special needs. She thanked them for being vulnerable and speaking up.

According to news reports, a RISD special education student had a behavioral episode a couple of weeks ago that was witnessed by parents, and some of those parents expressed concerns about the disruption, McIlroy said.

“… I want to assure you that the Roswell Schools has every intention to advocate on behalf of your children, your siblings to the fullest extent we possibly can,” McIlroy said. “We will never withdraw our support from you, or for your kids. We have amazing people who are working on their behalf …”

She thanked Shelley Bruns, special education director, and Sonia Lawson, assistant superintendent of special services and previous director of special education, as well as the district’s Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) specialists, and special education teachers working give students an education that parents and family members “dream for them to have.”

Parents Marissa Moreno and Christina Belton-Bravo addressed other RISD parents, those without special needs students, and asked them to consider how they would feel if judgments about behavior were passed on their children.

“There is no difference in students with disabilities,” said Belton-Bravo, who had five kids go through RISD and has one currently enrolled. “They only require that our educational service is a 110%. With the right support, students with disabilities thrive like any other student. If we use the Special Olympics as an example, we see a person with special needs can still achieve great things and it also richens their quality of life.

“By alienating students, not being inclusive, students with disabilities, we affect them adversely by solidifying their beliefs that they don’t belong. But they do belong. There is nothing that makes a normal child better than a child with special needs. In fact, your child, a normal child, may be more socially adept, but it may be my child who helps your child get an A in math.”

Rebecca Cobos, deputy director of special services at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, said her own son has disabilities, went through RISD and he is now a “successful” graduate from ENMU-R’s special services program. Cobos encouraged parents concerned about behavior that it was “important to consider the whole child, including the educational environment.”

“… To talk about the behavior one observes only speaks to a small portion of the overall issue,” Cobos said. “What about consistent, quality instruction and staff following the student’s IEP? People don’t get to see these underlying issues, so before we are quick to judge, let’s talk about our district’s ability to provide differential instruction and oversight of self-contained programs, or the Link programs as they are now renamed. I encourage the community who is concerned with these behaviors to take the time to volunteer and support these programs that help children with mental health issues and learning disabilities …”

Cobos rhetorically asked how the “village” of RISD would be “raising the child” if exclusionary practices were used. She commended RISD for “strategic changes from administration staff” in having qualified and “better-placed individuals” in RISD’s own special services.

Another parent, Renee Fitts, said her son is doing well in school due to inclusion opportunities, which she said she had to “advocate” and “fight” for over the years, and progress was made working with the district. Fitts said she was concerned when she heard RISD was “possibly considering other types of self-containment, reducing the amount of inclusion.”

“We only want to do better,” McIlroy said. “That is our promise to you. We will continue to get better and better — and we will not exclude your children in any way, shape or form and I just want to assure you of that. I hear your parents’ heart and it touches me — I’m just gonna say — and your kids matter, and they matter deeply and we will never, ever do anything to prevent them from getting the education they deserve, that they desire, and that they attain to …”

AVID program 

Principal Marcos Franco of Mesa Middle School said the principals made a presentation about Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) at the beginning of the semester. Franco said the program teaches critical thinking and other skills to support student success in school, as well as personal skills like “tenacity, grit and perseverance.”

Students from Mountain View, Sierra and Mesa middle schools shared what AVID has done for them. They listed improvements in support and skills such as time management, note-taking, focusing in class as well as planning for college. Others said it influenced them by building their confidence, working with their dyslexia, being a better person and making friends.

When Ruben Sanchez asked what their career goals are, some of the answers included plans to be future lawyers, doctors and several other careers. Some listed the colleges they plan on attending.

Through a skit, Mesa Middle School Students described AVID as a college-readiness course that helped them with writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization and reading.

Other business

As for action items, the board unanimously approved Military Heights Elementary School’s student council field trip to tour the Texas Tech University campus and participate in a robotics and engineering activity in the spring. One of the student council sponsors said the students needed to raise $920 total for transportation, and have already raised $820 through car washes and other fundraisers.

A donation of an ice machine to Roswell High School soccer was also approved unanimously.

Alberto “Albert” Cruz, head custodian at Mesa Middle School, thanked the school board for approving the salaries for janitors, maintenance, and security staff. He said they received their 7% in the most recent pay period.

At school board meeting on Nov. 12 Cruz said these RISD staffers received the raises as required by the state, but then it was revoked. McIlroy said the raises had not been ratified by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) 7070 union and the district had “no choice” but to stop paying the raises. Renegotian between CWA and RISD took place and the raises were approved at a school board special meeting on Nov. 19.

In reference to a statement from McIlroy to the Daily Record in a story that published on Nov. 15, Cruz said there was only one ratification meeting, not two. He said there was one ratification meeting and another for a counter-offer, where no votes were taken. He wanted it clarified that CWA 7070 did not refuse the offer twice as she had stated.

Citizen Larry Connolly thanked outgoing school board members Ruben Sanchez and Pittman for their service and reminded those present to get counted in the upcoming census to “hit 50,000 in Roswell.”

Special projects reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.