By Robert Tomlinson
CENTREVILLE — Brandy Gillespie’s 15-year-old son Carson was making progress with his learning.
A student in the St. Joseph County Intermediate School District’s emotionally-impaired (EI) program through the Pathfinder Center, Carson had been diagnosed with what Gillespie described during public comment at the Monday, Dec. 19 ISD Board of Education meeting as “severe mental health issues,” including combined ADHD/obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, and unspecified mood disorder. Gillespie said he had been hospitalized three times in the last three years because of these issues, with the latest time being earlier this year at Sturgis Middle School.
Gillespie and middle school staff worked “hand-in-hand” to find a solution for Carson to learn effectively, including half days and two-hour days, ultimately landing on a homebound learning setting for his middle school tenure. Gillespie said Ben Cunningham, an EI-endorsed teacher, had high praise for her son’s progress over the few years he worked with Carson.
“I will quote Ben’s words: ‘Carson has made more progress with me in three months than he has in the last three years,’” Gillespie said in public comment at the meeting.
In October, Carson began schooling at the Pathfinder EI program in Mendon, with Gillespie saying in an interview Tuesday they had “seen so much progress and success in that short time that we hadn’t seen in years.” He had been going two days a week, then three days a week, and would’ve started going five days a week in January.
However, just weeks before winter break, on Dec. 14, Gillespie was informed the ISD would be shutting down their EI program effective Dec. 23, forcing those in Pathfinder’s EI program back to their home school districts.
“This news was shocking and overwhelming. I have been in a state of an emotional roller coaster, reaching out to anyone for help with a solution, and I just can’t come up with one,” Gillespie said during public comment on Dec. 19. “I say this with great sadness: I feel the ISD has now set up my already-fragile son up for failure. We are basically being told with extremely short notice to figure it out, this is how it is, take it or your child goes with no educational supports.”
Gillespie said the ISD made a “reckless decision” shutting down the program, and that Carson “deserves a Free and Appropriate Public Education.”
“Our traditional schools are not set up to handle students who cannot regulate [their emotions] on their own. They do not have the resources or staff. It’s also traumatizing for non-special education students to have to witness,” Gillespie said during public comment. “All I keep hearing from administration is ‘I’m sorry.’ I don’t need or want an ‘I’m sorry,’ and neither does my son. I don’t know how the person that made this decision that can and will have severe consequences on these students can sleep at night without a plan to return an EI program.”
Gillespie is one of many parents of students in the program that have been seeking answers from the ISD since the shutdown of the program was announced earlier this month. The situation of the EI program’s shutdown was addressed by both board members and ISD Superintendent Teresa Belote following Gillespie’s comments.
The EI program had been a classroom for students at the secondary level with emotional impairments, and provided instruction for those who have “significant needs,” with classrooms having been located in Centreville, Mendon and Three Rivers. The program served approximately 10 students, and was open to all of the school districts in the county.
ISD Board President Elizabeth O’Dell immediately cited a teacher shortage as the main reasoning behind the shutdown.
“As the board’s president, I too am troubled that we can’t find teachers to teach our students,” O’Dell said. “We had a teacher who had decided to resign from that particular class. That leaves us without a teacher. That’s our problem.”
Belote said she “understands the concern” about the EI program’s shutdown, and reiterated the staffing struggles the ISD has had this year, with “five of 13 classes” not having certified staff at the beginning of the year, with three of those not having consistent substitutes.
“At the same time, we had 22 and a half unfilled openings that were instructional or direct student support personnel at the ISD,” Belote said. “We also had almost no subs that are willing to work in classrooms that have significant need.”
Belote then rattled off a list of efforts the ISD has reportedly done to attempt to avoid the shutdown of the EI program, a document which was also obtained by the Commercial-News. These efforts reportedly included asking state legislators to re-enact Public Act 149, which would allow “skilled assistant teachers” to be substitute teachers, shared concerns with state officials, and contacted lobbyists and local Chambers of Commerce asking for support.
According to the document, across St. Joseph County in August, 11 percent of programs had uncertified staff, many of which were in special education.
On the classroom side, according to the document, the ISD reportedly utilized school administrators as substitute teachers, pulled administrative assistants into assistant teacher positions to try to fill openings, offered bonuses and higher pay for substitutes, approved a letter of agreement paying staff “if they could move work up to 1 day a week to nights and weekends and pay them extra,” and talked to staff that hadn’t volunteered to see if they would be willing.
As a “final effort,” the ISD put together a calendar to see if they could cover every day from January to June, and shared it with local superintendents with the ISD Superintendent and ISD Director listed weekly, but the document stated there “wasn’t enough availability with superintendents covering their own district shortages as well.”
Belote said the ISD reached out to legal counsel to try to find a solution.
“We called and said, ‘What are our options?’ They said, you can’t run a classroom without at least a daily sub. It’s not legal,” Belote said. “That answer was pretty clear. It wasn’t a choice; it was a lack of choice that led to this.”
Belote said she agreed that the timeframe was “short,” and that they tried combining the Pathfinder site in Mendon with the Centreville center to keep it going, but Mendon requested the ISD to not continue to have a program there.
“I hate that answer, I understand your frustration, and I feel it myself, but that’s the reason why we’re not operating that program after Christmas. I don’t have a teacher to legally run it,” Belote said. “I know that doesn’t feel good as a parent.”
O’Dell said there wasn’t an answer that was “satisfactory,” and that the ISD needs teachers.
“We want to run these programs, we need teachers. We’re not pointing the fingers at any one person, but we need teachers in order to run the programs. We need daily subs in order to run the programs, and we’re short. We’ve been short all year,” O’Dell said. “If you know of a solution, come talk to us. I know the people making decisions aren’t sleeping.”
In an interview Tuesday, Dec. 20, Belote said they would only be shutting down the program “temporarily” because of the teacher situation, and indicated she’d want it to continue once a teacher is found.
“In the absence of a teacher, you can’t legally run a classroom and not have a teacher in it. You can run with a sub, somebody that’s permitted to be a teacher, and we didn’t have it either. There were no other options except to make sure students still got Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), working with locals to do that,” Belote said. “We still have the posting up, because assuming we can find a teacher, we do plan on continuing to run that in the future.”
FAPE, according to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), is part of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires a school district to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to each qualified person with a disability who is in the school district’s jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the person’s disability.
An appropriate education is defined by the DOE as including education services designed to meet the individual education needs of students with disabilities as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students are met; the education of each student with a disability with nondisabled students, to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the student with a disability; evaluation and placement procedures established to guard against misclassification or inappropriate placement of students, and a periodic reevaluation of students who have been provided special education or related services; and establishment of due process procedures for parents and guardians.
To parents who are feeling upset over the shutdown, Belote said she “agrees with and supports” parents who are “worried about making sure their children have the best education.” She said the ISD would need to address what a FAPE for students is individually
“In the absence of one option, we have to then be creative about what an alternative option looks like to make sure we’re meeting the needs of children, and our locals have certainly stepped up to work on that for every kid we’re talking about,” Belote said.
At least one school district indicated they may be exploring legal action against the ISD over the shutdown. Outgoing Centreville Public Schools Board of Education President Jeff Troyer mentioned the possibility during the board’s Dec. 12 meeting, as the district, like many others in St. Joseph County, had a contract with the ISD for EI services.
“Superintendent [Chad] Brady is reaching out to our legal counsel to follow up with them,” Troyer said at the Dec. 12 meeting. “Personally, I’m very, very disappointed. This is another service that our Intermediate School District, and we’ve talked about it so many times, that they provide. The holiday is coming up and, oh, just, ‘We’re done.’ That is just discouraging that our St. Joseph County ISD builds relationships with our districts and then treats us like that. Sorry, that’s completely unacceptable.”
However, Belote said Dec. 20 she is currently not worried about the threat of legal action from local school districts.
“They understand that legally we can’t operate a program on their behalf. It’s illegal for us to do that. I would be concerned if we tried to run a program that we can’t legally operate,” Belote said.
As for Gillespie, she said in an interview Tuesday she was nervous about her son going to Sturgis High School beginning in January with a new Individualized Education Program (IEP), due to him “not being able to regulate his emotions.” She said the school district has been doing “everything in their power” to accommodate her son, but she doesn’t feel he would be getting the education he needs with the shutdown of the EI program.
“We have been through hell trying to find the proper education and setting for him,” Gillespie said. “This has just been really hard, and now we’re going backwards and putting him back in a school with no emotional supports. At this point, I don’t know what to do, because it’s either I take what they’re offering, or he gets nothing. That’s really hard for a parent.”
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON
Pictured is the St. Joseph County ISD administration building Wednesday. The ISD shut down their emotionally-impaired (EI) learning program effective Dec. 23 due to a lack of teachers in the program, which has left parents of those children figuring out what to do for them education-wise. ISD Superintendent Teresa Belote has indicated she’d want to start the program back up once a teacher is hired.