Special education returns home

GREENFIELD — Special education students will go to school closer to home this fall under a reorganization plan for Mt. Vernon, Southern Hancock and Eastern Hancock schools.

The school corporations utilize services through a special education cooperative, Hancock Madison Shelby Educational Services, and historically have sent students with severe or profound special needs to Greenfield-Central or other nearby schools.

Greenfield-Central recently announced plans to pull out of the cooperative and independently run its special education program. That prompted the county’s remaining three districts to make plans to renovate classrooms for their students who will no longer travel to Greenfield-Central for services as part of interlocal agreement with the co-op.

The co-op, which is based in Greenfield, provides staff, training and other support services for more than 3,200 special education students from six area school corporations. Greenfield-Central is the largest of the districts it serves, with about 960 special education students; about 30 students from other districts had been attending programming at Greenfield-Central through the interlocal agreement.

Greenfield-Central will withdraw from the co-op July 1; school officials have already hired Greenfield-Central’s own director of special services.

Meanwhile, the county’s remaining school districts are putting plans in motion to renovate existing spaces to serve students with special needs.

Mt. Vernon High School’s old band room, for example, will be renovated during the next three months into a sensory room with computer stations, writing boards, lockers, small-group rooms and a washroom.

Six to 10 Mt. Vernon students had been sent to several South Madison schools for services; they will go to Mt. Vernon High School starting this fall.

At Southern Hancock, classrooms at Brandywine Elementary, Doe Creek Middle School and New Palestine High School will be prepared so parents in the Southern Hancock school district can send their special education children to local schools as opposed to Greenfield-Central.

Eastern Hancock also will house its own students in elementary school classroom space that already has been renovated.

The switch is all part of a reorganization that came when Greenfield-Central announced in December it would no longer be a part of the co-op, citing a desire to have more oversight in staffing decisions and programs.

While it comes at a cost to local districts, Karen Niemeier, director of the co-op, said she’s hopeful the changes will ultimately help families.

“Our No. 1 piece is to make sure the needs of our students are being met and make sure the rooms that are available are more than adequate to meet their needs,” Niemeier said, adding that officials in Southern Hancock and Mt. Vernon are currently working with architects to begin renovations. “It’s very new and exciting. We are thrilled we are looking at decentralization and getting students back in their districts.”

The renovations at Mt. Vernon High School are expected to cost $150,000, to be paid out of the school corporation’s capital projects fund. The co-op will pay for a portion of the specialized equipment needed for the students.

According to a news release from the school corporation, a portion of Mt. Vernon’s expenditures will be recouped over time as the facilities will be rented for the co-op; Mt. Vernon will receive a facilities credit on its co-op invoice for special education services.

At Southern Hancock, significant renovations at roughly $125,000 are slated for the elementary school; the middle school classroom needs no work; and school officials are still trying to figure out how much will have to be spent at the high school.

Bob Yoder, assistant superintendent, expects higher costs for the high school, which requires a life sciences area, kitchen, washer and dryer.

The changes to accommodate 18 students with special needs were discussed at a recent school board work session.

Southern Hancock could be welcoming students in from the Northwest-Shelby School District as well as students from Eastern Hancock, depending on each student’s special needs.

The school corporation expects the co-op to pay for some of the renovations to their buildings.

Grenfield-Central’s move to withdraw caused the co-op to re-evaluate all of its services, Niemeier said, and co-op officials determined the remaining county districts would better serve students in their own buildings as opposed to sending them elsewhere.

Parents have been receiving letters in the mail about the upcoming changes.

The reception has been positive, Mt. Vernon High School principal Bernie Campbell said.

“Mt. Vernon parents are thrilled for their kids to come to Mt. Vernon High School,” Campbell said in a news release. “We believe the renovated facilities and new staff will further their educational progress, and we are looking forward to these students being at Mt. Vernon.”

Southern Hancock and Eastern Hancock superintendents Lisa Lantrip and Randy Harris said they, too, believe parents are eager to keep their children closer to home.

Not only do the changes bring the students’ education closer to home, Niemeier said, but it’s easier on families with other students in the school corporation to be on the same academic calendar.

Still under review, Niemeier said, is figuring out how the changes will affect staffing.

Teachers, occupational therapists, physical therapists and nurses make up for a total of 55 Greenfield employees of the co-op. Greenfield-Central Superintendent Harold Olin said recently that employees will be interviewed for positions at Greenfield-Central; Niemeier said staff also may remain with the co-op if they choose not to become a part of the new Greenfield program.

“I think in the long run, it has an element that’s been positive,” Niemeier said. “Change can always be scary, and that’s certainly something we want to minimize for all parties involved.”