A two-and-a-half-hour meeting Tuesday night that gave parents of special education students in Porter County an opportunity to voice concerns and ask questions about their children’s education was billed as only the first step in a potential transformation of Porter County Educational Services, but one who can move quickly.
Jim McCall, Superintendent of the Valparaiso Community School Corporation and one of the eight PCES board members, chaired the town hall-style meeting in a nearly full Valparaiso High School cafeteria.
He began with a history of special education in Porter County, stating that prior to 1971, the county had no special education offerings. The superintendents of schools in Duneland, Portage, Valparaiso, and Porter County established PCES in 1971, and the Special Education Learning Facility, also known as SELF, was built under an interlocal agreement in 1977.
“But over time, old models have to evolve,” McCall said. “There is a sense of otherness that was noted by special education staff in the buildings,” he said of the special education teachers who teach at local county schools but are currently employed by PCES. He said there’s also confusion among parents, who often don’t know whether to address an issue with PCES or the local school their children attend.
To clarify, in Porter County, some of the special education is offered at county schools, while some is offered at the SELF School, a separate building on Ransom Road on the north side of Valparaiso. Some students receive training at both locations.
The first change the PCES Board is considering is whether to relocate the nearly 300 building-based special education and paraprofessional professionals from PCES staff to local district staff. McCall said the idea had been discussed at some previous PCES and VCSC board meetings.
On Oct. 18, a letter was sent to parents of special needs students inviting them to Tuesday’s town hall meeting.
“Change is hard,” McCall said before opening the floor to public comment. “You have to have the courage to change. We cannot have a good product without a good process.”
He said parents are an integral part of this, and the board wanted a proactive design and build process on the front end, rather than a reactive one on the back end.
“I’ve also been known to love an open mic,” he added.
Indeed, all who had signed up were given the opportunity to speak, as well as some who had not previously signed up. No time restrictions were imposed on parents, as is often the case at public gatherings.
Over 20 people, including many parents and special education teachers, spoke. Their comments ranged from considerable anger to feeling blocked when speaking up for their children in intimidating gatherings, which could be 10 administrators and service providers for one or two parents plus a lawyer, to accusations of being lied to to ideas of something special to make education better, too much praise for the teachers and paraprofessionals who work in the classroom.
Jessica Witherspoon was the first to speak. She told the board that there was a big difference in the quality of input parents were given between the PCES parent network group now offered and a parent advisory committee. “When can we parents hear from you as to when your districts will form PACs?” she asked.
Jenny Hansen, whose son attends SELF in the mornings and Chesterton High School in the afternoons, wants a contingency plan for staffing shortages. “My son hasn’t had speech therapy for five weeks,” she said.
She added that last Friday all teachers in her district were given a card with a $100 bill of thanks. She said such a gesture should be considered for all special education teachers in the county, especially given the shortage of special education teachers.
Another parent asked what would happen if the recent increase in paraprofessional pay from $12 to $15 an hour was not enough to keep the teaching aids. Kathleen Benson, mother of an autistic student at Union Township School Corporation and a special education teacher at Jones Elementary School in Portage Township, has an idea.
“I wish my para got paid year-round,” she said, referring to the salary model available to teachers. “I couldn’t do my job without my para. I ask her to stay. I shower them with presents,” she said, to a giggle from the audience. “I really do,” she replied.
Dawn Kucera from Kouts called for transparency.
“Don’t lie to our faces during a meeting,” she said of her attempts to keep her 8-year-old daughter, Eliana, at her neighborhood school in Morgan Township. Eliana attends Bailly Primary School at Duneland School Corporation as she provides the county deaf and hard of hearing services she needs while Kucera has been trying to get her those services at her local school her big brother attends.
“Don’t tell us we have a choice, and then two weeks later tell us, ‘No, you don’t have a choice,'” Kucera said. “Be honest.”
The Board expects to continue to respond to questions raised at the meeting via an ongoing document on its website https://www.pces.k12.in.us/. “We will most likely divide and conquer the various questions and expect to start answering them on Friday,” said Amanda Alaniz, superintendent of Portage Township Schools.
McCall said the board would need to make a decision as early as next month if it wanted to make the proposed change as early as fall 2023. The next PCES board meeting will be held on Tuesday, December 6th at 8am in the boardroom at SELF School, 750 Ransom Road, Valparaiso, IN 46385.
Shelley Jones is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.