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Providence Parents Claim School Dept. Violating Special Needs Act

Saturday, May 10, 2014


The playground at Asa Messer, which is slated to house an integrated pre-K next year -- and parents are saying is not barrier-free for special needs students.

Parents in Providence are claiming that the Providence School Department is in violation of federal law following the decision to move an integrated pre-K program out of a barrier-free Vartan Gregorian Elementary in Fox Point to a non-barrier free environment -- and say they are looking to pursue legal action.

Hollybeth Runco, a Vartan Gregorian parent who has special needs children, said, "IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) says children with special needs need to be in the least restrictive environment possible. There is legal precedence for action against arbitrary and capricious decision making."

Now, several parents have stepped forth to express their frustration that the city made the decision to shutter the integrated pre-K program at the "barrier-free" Vartan Gregorian in lieu of housing a pre-K program at Asa Messer, which parents say is not barrier-free, and provided pictures to show the difference in school and playground environments.

"By replacing pre-k classrooms at Vartan with ELL (English Language Learner) classrooms and saying that ELL student deserve a high performing school, the Mayor and PPSD are making a clear message that our special needs children do not deserve to attend a high performing school," said parent Susan Teeden-Cielo. "Every child, regardless of race, development, abilities, disabilities and socio-economic status deserves a high performing school in their neighborhood or community."

"We don't want to compare one need against another," said parent Kira Greene. "The city needs to figure out a way to meet ALL kids needs and not pitting one against the other."


Right to Barrier-Free Environment Called into Question

The barrier-free playground at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School, where integrated pre-K is due to be removed from next year.

"There's a misconception that a kid needs to be in a wheelchair to need a barrier free environment," said Runco. "That's not true. Kids with physiological issues need one as well."

Runco continued, "Why would you move a barrier free program to a non-barrier free one? You can do ELL at all types of schools. The only other barrier-free schools are Pleasant View and Carnevale."

"The way in which the School Department and Mayor have closed down the VG integrated pre-K program illustrates a blatant disregard for our City's youngest special needs students," said Green. "Neither the Mayor, Superintendent nor one School Board Member has publicly communicated the understating, or need to consider, regulations that guide the placement of special needs children. A review of the School Board minutes, as well as a reply from the Mayor's office, and Lusi's talking points illustrates this failure."

See April 16 School Board Meeting Minutes HERE

"Reading this, it's more than clear: they are saying that Vartan needs an ELL program so that ELL kids have a free choice of schools," said Runco. "It is at the heart of this problem. Special needs children pre-K do NOT have school choice in their own neighborhood, but those from another neighborhood should have placement OVER them."

Continued Requests for Meetings -- and Information

Runco said she called into question the city's outreach attempts to identify special needs students, which she said she has asked for in specific information requests.

On Thursday May 8, Runco sent the District Attorney an e-mail updating her attempt to obtain information from the School Department.

"I am the parent from the Vartan Gregorian PreK that wrote the FOIA request dated March 29th. We received the answers to that request, but many of the answers puzzled me. For example, upon further research, it appears as if I've been...fleeced. That's the best word for it," wrote Runco.

Runco noted that at the last school board meeting, information was presented that she said she had repeatedly asked for, but was not provided with ahead of time.

"I don't enjoy being manipulated or discriminated against by the PPSD--or by people they plant in the audience. If they disagree that I'm being discriminated against, they can sit down with me and discuss it," wrote Runco. "They can explain why only ELL kids deserve a choice of the best school--necessarily displacing all our special needs preK kids and preventing a special needs integrated kindergartner program. Or, they can wait for my ACLU complaint."

A map put together by parents showing the concentration pre-K options next in one section of Providence only.

Runco cited RIDE policy pertaining to special needs that she feels is in violation as well. "When special needs are involved, these considerations must take precedence: RIDE regulations state (RIDE 300.116) that a special needs child’s placement is to be “as close as possible to the child’s home unless the IEP of the child requires some other arrangement, the child is educated in the school that he or she would attend if non-disabled.”

Furthermore, Runco said that IDEA requires states to identify, locate, and evaluate ALL children with disabilities, aged birth to 21, who are in need of early intervention or special education services. In Rhode Island, the Child Outreach Screening Program serves as the vehicle for this requirement for children ages 3, 4, and 5.

"Providence only screened 33% of three years olds, and I know that outreach programs aren't reaching all areas of the city equally," said Runco. "NOT ONE African-American child living in the Greater East Side Mount Hope Area was screened proactively with an outreach program and placed in the PreK at Vartan Gregorian in the last 3 years. There are literally hundreds of kids being screened in chosen neighborhoods."

As of now, the decision appears to be final for the removal of integrated pre-K from Vartan Gregorian -- leaving no pre-K option on the East Side/Mt. Hope sections of Providence.

"These decisions were made with no parental engagement or even a formal notice. The Mayor has yet to respond to our concerns and questions and we have not been able to get a meeting with him to discuss the multiple layers upon layers of problems that will be created by going ahead with this decision," said Teeden-Cielo.


Related Slideshow: 10 Questions Taveras Has to Answer When Running for Gov of RI

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#10 Fundraising

Can Taveras Keep Up with the Big Boys and Girls in Fundraising?

In America today, one issue that is a factor in nearly every election is fundraising. To date, Taveras has yet to demonstrate any consistent ability to keep up with the leading fundraisers in RI.

Taveras will have to compete with General Treasuer Gina Raimondo, who has $2 plus million on hand and a likely run from Clay Pell (grandson of US Senator Claiborne Pell and whose wife is Olympic skater Michelle Kwan).

Raimondo is on pace to raise $5m and Taveras presently has just $692,000 on hand and would be on pace to raise less than $2 mliion. 

Pell's family has access to nearly limitless dollars - back in the 1990's Pell's grandfather was ranked as one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

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#9 Curse

Can Taveras Break the Providence Mayor's Curse?

For more than 60 years, no Providence Mayor has been successful running for Governor of Rhode Island. You have to go back to the 1950 election when Dennis Roberts was elected Governor.

Since Roberts, a number of Providence Mayors have taken their shot at running for Governor and each has failed mightily.

Most notably, Buddy Cianci's run against J. Joseph Garrahy - Cianci got less than 30% of the statewide vote.

Joe Paolino was expected to win the Democratic primary in 1990, but was beaten badly by Bruce Sundlun and then Warwick Mayor Frank Flaherty.

Sundlun went on to win the general election and Flaherty was later named to the state Supreme Court.

Taveras will have to break a very long curse.

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#8 Hire or Fire

Can Teachers Trust Taveras - and Will Voters Trust His Relationship with the Teachers Unions?

In the midst of the city's political meltdown, Taveras just into his first few months in office fired all the teachers in Providence.

Taveras received strong public support, but within months he capitulated to pressure from the teachers' unions.

Three years later, he is emerging as the candidate of the teachers' union leadership. Will teachers trust him in a statewide race and will voters trust him if he is perceived as too close to union bosses?

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#7 Hispanics

Will Hispanics Vote as a Block in the Primary for Taveras? Are They Influential Enough in the General?

Conventional wisdom is that Angel Taveras will get a big boost from the Hispanic voting block in the primary, but more recently Council members Luis Aponte, Danian Sanchez and Sabina Matos have all openly battled with the mayor on his tax increases and efforts to close pools in low income wards around the city.

While Taveras can rebound and the impact may be large in the primary, the percentage of voters who are Hispanic in the general election is just 7% according to Pew Research:

  • Rhode Island’s population is 12% Hispanic, the 13th largest Hispanic population share nationally.
  • There are 54,000 Hispanic eligible voters in Rhode Island—which ranks 35th in Hispanic eligible voter population nationally. California ranks first with 5.9 million.
  • Some 7% of Rhode Island eligible voters are Hispanic, the 13th largest Hispanic eligible voter population share nationally. New Mexico ranks first with 39%.
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#6 Temperament

Can Taveras Handle the Campaign Pressure and the Office Pressure of Governor?

Taveras had no experience as a chief executive in business or government before taking office in 2011 in Providence. He has increasingly gotten into some very non-productive scrapes.

In 2012, his law office delivered a document to GoLocalProv as part of a FOIA request and those documents included the social security number of every retiree of the City. Instead of taking responsibility he sent his lawyers to court to try to block GoLocal from writing about the mishandling of social security numbers. The judge ruled against Taveras.

In 2013, Taveras has tried to demolish a commuity swimming pool in South Providence because, according to Councilman Danian Sanchez, Sanchez would not vote for Taveras' tax increase.

Will Taveras be able to prove to voters he has the right stuff?

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#5 Base outside Prov

Can Angel Taveras Build a Political Base Outside of Providence?

While Taveras has a strong political base in Providence, it is unclear if he can build a strong political network in critical Democratic strongholds like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, East Providence, Johnston and North Providence.

It is well known that both Democratic Mayors in North Providence and Johnston have had a strained relationship with Taveras.

This strain has played out over critical matters like mutual emergency aid and in 2012, North Providence, Johnston and East Providence all cancelled emergency aid compacts with Providence.

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#4 Women Voters

Can Taveras Compete for Women Voters?

When Taveras ran for Mayor he won the critical block of East Side Democratic women. Part of his success with this critical block of voters was the support he enjoyed from Democratic power Myrth York. 

The two-time Democratic nominee for Governor went all in for Taveras in 2010, but she no longer is active in the inner circle and reportedly would have supported Governor Lincoln Chafee in the primary.

Taveras will need to compete with Raimondo who has already signed former EMILY's list bigwig Kate Coyne-McCoy.

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#3 Star Power

Can Taveras Keep Up with Clay Pell's Star Power?

In 2010, Taveras ran under the motto of "from Head Start to Harvard."  His claim on the American dream proved a successful juxtaposition to two Democrats who had the same political base - Federal Hill (Steven Costantino and John Lombardi).

Now, Taveras may face the fresh-faced Clay Pell. His bio exceeds Taveras as he can claim the legacy of his grandfather's work and hit the circuit with his superstar wife, Olympian Michelle Kwan.

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#2 Issues and Vision

Can Angel Taveras Articulate a Vision for Rhode Island?

Taveras earned good scores for managing the City of Providence's financial crises, but never seemed to develop major policies for economic development, schools, parking, crime, reducing the cost of government or improving the efficiency.
The Superman building's closure happened on his watch, technology company Dassault Systèmes is moving out of Providence, and no major employers were recruited into the city other than the scrap yard on Allens Avenue.
Taveras will need to define a forward looking vision for Rhode Island.
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#1 Crime and Education

Can Taveras Explain His Record on Crime and Education?

The biggest problem for Taveras is his record in Providence.
Most people care about the basics - their jobs, education for their children, how safe their neighborhood is.  These vary questions could be Taveras' Achilles' heel.
According to GoLocal's study of the FBI crime data, Providence is ranked #2 for violent crime per capita in Rhode Island.
The condition of Providence's schools may be worse. Of the 24 schools ranked as poor (de facto failing) in Rhode Island by the Department of Education, 6 of them were Providence Schools and in the rankings of the best high schools in the state, most of Providence's schools consistently litter the bottom of the rankings.
Taveras lead the city to win the $5 million Bloomberg award. But in a Governor's race one of Taveras' opponents is sure to ask, "Mr. Mayor, are you going to bring the same policies you used on crime and education in Providence to the rest of the state?"

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@Kate Nagle: Did Hollybeth Runco really say "There is legal precedence..."? Or did she say, "There is legal precedent..."?
I consider people's use of the English language as one factor in forming my opinion (of them and of their position).

Comment #1 by Charles Beckers on 2014 05 10

Hi Charles! Love it! I admire your appreciation for mastery of the English Language. As a mechanical engineer, I am probably bound to fail any in-depth inspection. You are correct, of course, in your observation. I very well may have misspoken, but I honestly can't recall the word choice.

I am more of a numbers person, but I don't need my (rather rusty) higher math skills for this problem. Parents are made aware of the PreK program through outreach efforts in various neighborhoods. Where there is no outreach, there is decreased identification of special needs children and many fewer applications for the mainstream spots that accompany them.

I'll let you judge for yourself. Below is the raw data for the number of kids in the program per zip code. Check it out.

Here is the number of children per zip code in Special Needs PreK:
02903 1
02904 15
20905 18
02906 6
02907 47
02908 47
02909 57
02911 2

Here is the number of mainstream applications per zip code:
02903 4
02904 27
20905 50
02906 20
02907 130
02908 111
02909 185
02911 2

Out of 529 applications for the mainstream spots, 81% are from only 3 of 8 zipcodes in Providence. While I’d expect there to be some variability among the different zip codes and even the amount of outreach, I don’t feel the current distribution is representative of the actual number of families with needs.

I find this to be very compelling. It affects many, many families. And, it's not legal. You cannot "chose" which special needs children get served.

Comment #2 by Hb Runco on 2014 05 10

@Charles Beckers-
In looking back at past go local articles, I see that you are a frequent contributor to the comments section, most times asking a lot of questions about other's responses or criticizing some petty error or remark. You don't seem to be contributing anything useful here, AND in one comment, you actually stated that you do not live in Providence.

Here, let me word it in a way that you can relate...through asking questions...

Perhaps you could, and should be less judgmental?
Do you have anything positive to contribute?
Do you have a child with special needs that you wish to advocate for, or for us to help you advocate?
Perhaps you could tell me what you know about this topic- or what made you feel the nee to comment about this article?

Comment #3 by Susan Teeden Teeden on 2014 05 10

ooops! sorry Charles! I have a typo! Shame on me!

Comment #4 by Susan Teeden Teeden on 2014 05 10

I hope you continue this fight as long as it takes to win. Schools take all sorts of measure to meet the "special" needs of all sorts of kids, whether it's AP courses, ESL classes, or clubs and activities. To intentionally move kids with special physical needs to a school where those meets won't be met is unconscionable.

Comment #5 by John Onamas on 2014 05 12

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.