Pinellas still hopes to prepare special-ed students, despite cuts
Travis White, a special education student from Northeast High School, got a job at Love My Dog after the school district spent a year trying to convince the owner that it was a good idea. Now, he's been offered a full-time position after he graduates from the extended learning program. White cleans out the splash pool. CLIFF MCBRIDE/STAFF
ST. PETERSBURG - When Arnel Faren graduated from Gibbs High School in 2009, he wasn't able to answer his father's questions about what he was going to do with his life.
Now that he's graduated from the Pinellas County school district's Extended Transition program, his future is blossoming like the plants he grows at Island Bamboo garden in Pinellas Park, where he works.
"I learned there are times where people will ridicule you, but even if they do, which happens very often, as hard as it may be, always do your best," said Faren, 22. "They may say, 'Oh, you're retarded.' or 'You're stupid,' but you can prove them wrong. You can show them what you can do."
The Extended Transition program isn't included in the $6.5 million in proposed cuts to special education programs in Pinellas County Schools, which spends $64 million more than the state average to teach students with disabilities and where many classes are underenrolled. The changes won't put any of the school district's special-ed students at risk, administrators say; but those closest to the students worry about how they'll be effected.
"There are tons of kids already who need to be in this program and aren't," said Mary Sharpe, one of three job trainers in the program that helps 18- to 22-year-olds land jobs after high school. "It's hard to say how those cuts will affect us. We may see more kids. Who knows?"
Eliminating positions accounts for about $4.7 million of the cuts, while $1.8 million would be saved by closing K-12 Hamilton Disston School in Gulfport and moving students to Calvin Hunsinger School in Clearwater or Richard L. Sanders School in Pinellas Park.
The change is expected to boost enrollment at Calvin Hunsinger from 111 students to 150 and from 123 to 140 at Richard L. Sanders, according to school district estimates. Hamilton Disston was built to accommodate 225 students but serves only 101 and has about 40 employees.
Moving to larger class sizes could impact some special-ed students, though district administrators have said the change will provide more opportunities for extracurricular activities and more social interaction.
For Gerard Wright, one of three students in Hamilton Disston's last graduating class, the small class sizes are what made the school "a family" and helped him finally pass the FCAT. Being able to walk across the graduation stage with his cousins at Boca Ciega High School's Wednesday ceremony was the highlight of his high school career and the first step toward his dream of becoming a nurse.
"It was a very good school, it helped us through all of the pain and tears, and I'm very sad to see it closed; but with budget cuts I understand why," said Wright's mother, Chanthini Childs. "I have another one that's going to end up going to one of the other schools, and I think that'll be good that they're around more people."
The schools won't be the only ones dealing with more students.
Next year, the Extended Transition program is expecting 129 new students, Sharpe said. That's a large influx compared to the 60 to 80 students who have passed through the program this year.
"There are only three job coaches for the whole county, so we're stretched pretty thin," Sharpe said. "There are already times where I can't get to everyone."
The visits help boost the confidence of students, many of whom have an IQ of less than 70, she said.
Travis White, 22, for example, is intellectually disabled but in October beat out 20 other employees to win the employee of the month award at Love My Dog, a pet resort and playground in St. Petersburg, where he performs odd jobs, such as laundry and lawn maintenance, and recently earned a bonus, said owner Natalie Conner.
"I love it," he said. "I learn communication and responsibility. I'd like to work here forever."
The consolidations in the school system will make Sharpe's job that much more important to ensuring student success. Wednesday was her last time visiting students aging out of the transitions program, and starting Monday many of her students will begin working with St. Petersburg nonprofit PlacementWorks, doing things such as scheduling cabs.
"They're scaling back on staff, not on students," Sharpe said. "What's really important to keep our program going is community involvement - finding employers that are willing to hire our students - and that can take some time. We'll be OK."