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A tricycle is left on the playground at Pine Street Preschool, which is slated to be closed and its special education students transferred, angrering parents. (photo by Brandon Wise)

LINCOLN BLVD — Parents of children with autism who attend Pine Street Preschool will tell people straight away that the collection of four makeshift classrooms is not the most aesthetically appealing learning environment in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

The true beauty of Pine Street is what happens inside. The three teachers, their roughly 15 students with special needs and the parents have formed a caring and compassionate community and a system that produces results. The proof is in the pupils.

“My son has made amazing progress since he entered Pine Street,” said Colette O’Connell, whose 3-year-old son was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. “When he first started he had about 50 words [in his vocabulary]. Now he is starting to talk in sentences. … Every parent I talk to who had a child go through Pine Street only had positive reviews.”

O’Connell and other Pine Street parents, past and present, can’t say the same thing for district administrators who are shutting down the preschool after more than 10 successful years to make room for the expansion of Olympic High School.

Parents spoke out at a recent school board meeting, expressing their opposition to the dismantling of Pine Street and their disappointment with district staff over how they were notified of the closure. Parents said they were not made aware that their children would be transferred to three elementary schools within the district until the last month of school, and many still have unanswered questions, such as what classroom their child will be in and where they will be able to get the physical therapy they need. Pine Street had a clinic on site for therapy sessions.

At least one parent has threatened to sue the district because of the closure, which she believes will have a negative impact on her son.

“I am grateful for and pleased with the placements and services at Pine Street — the [school] board is gambling with a known success versus an unknown risk: if the new arrangement does not work for my son, or delays his progression in any way, be advised I will exercise my right to request a due process hearing against the district to obtain more appropriate placement and services,” Pine Street parent Katrina Bronson wrote to the school board last week.

District officials said teachers at Pine Street found out about the closure through a “leak” and told parents before relocation plans were finalized, creating confusion and uncertainty. Special Education Director Sara Woolverton said she was forced to close Pine Street because of the construction, but it had always been the intention of the district to relocate the preschool’s students to permanent facilities where they and their teachers could become part of the larger education community and not be marginalized.

There was also some concern expressed about having preschool kids on the same campus as Olympic High, a continuation school for teens who are at risk of not graduating.

The closure of Pine Street comes as the district seems to be making progress in healing relationships with special ed parents following decades of mistrust in which parents were made to sign confidentiality agreements, or “gag orders,” making some afraid to advocate for their children.

For many at Pine Street, the feeling is that nothing has changed.

“They just need four classrooms and are throwing us out,” O’Connell said. “They really don’t know how this is going to go so they are letting our children be the guinea pigs.”

Some school board members said they would have liked to have seen more communication between the parents and district administrators to alleviate some of the uncertainty.

“I expressed great concerns about the way the information had been rolled out,” said school board member Jose Escarce. “But it’s not too late to try and fix that. We need to have aggressive outreach to inform parents and explain everything to them — to reassure them.”

School board vice president Ralph Mechur said he would have liked to have seen discussions with the parents take place earlier in the school year so they could be better prepared.

“The board will be watching this to make sure the transition is successful,” Mechur said.

Woolverton said as soon as she found out where the Pine Street kids would be transferred she immediately sent out letters to all the parents letting them know and had several phone conversations with them. She did not want to inform parents of the closure until she had a transfer plan in place. She is disappointed about the leak and sympathizes with concerned parents.

“Change is difficult for some people, especially when you are dealing with children who are at such a young age,” she said. “But each classroom has a teacher and an aid and both will be moving with the students, keeping the class intact.”

Woolverton said the elementary schools are currently offering stellar services for students with special needs and will be able to accommodate Pine Street kids. She believes the kids will benefit from being a part of a larger school environment and Pine Street teachers will have more on-campus support and an administrator to advocate for their needs instead of being on an isolated campus.

There is still some uncertainty as to where physical and speech therapy will be held. It is currently administered at Pine Street. Woolverton said plans for therapy should be finalized soon and she expects the district to not accrue any additional costs because of the transfer.

“In the end, I think it will be a positive change,” Woolverton said.

While parents said they were only recently made aware of the move, the school board in October of 2007 voted for a plan to relocate the special education program at Pine Street, occupational and physical therapy and child care classrooms so that Olympic could be expanded.

Even so, uncertainty is unsettling, said Clara Sturak, whose son attended Pine Street for two years. While breaking up Pine Street could be beneficial down the road, Sturak wonders what the immediate impact will be. She knows from her own experience that Pine Street works and has saved the district money in the form of fewer parents requesting outside services that can be costly.

“My primary concern is that by taking our kids … and putting them in their own little rooms … that are separated from the rest of the campus, you’ve made the first step in segregating our kids and frankly our kids are segregated systemically,” said Sturak, who serves on the district’s Special Education Advisory Committee. “At least at Pine Street they get enormous benefit from being around their peers. You have kids in general ed preschool who mingle with those in special ed before they know enough to be critical or make fun.”

kevinh@smdp.com

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