Parents plead to save special needs school from closing

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SARASOTA – Parents of students at a special needs school on the Suncoast fear that “F” grades from the state will force it to close. Some parents got to speak up for the school to a state official who visited Thursday.

At ten years old, Lexi Ezelle cannot say what she wants for lunch. It's not that she's indecisive. It's that, with her autism, she can hardly talk at all. “Is that the teachers' fault?” Lexi's mother Debbie Ezelle asks. “Absolutely not.”

Debbie Ezelle fears that under the state's grading system, Oak Park School, which takes in special needs students from across Sarasota County's school district, will continue to get “F”s that will endanger its existence. “We're going to our second F,” she says. “One more F, they can close us down.”

She got a chance to voice her concern Thursday when the school hosted a regional meeting that included the state Department of Education's director of exceptional student education (ESE) programs, Monica Verra-Tirado.

“We offered to host the regional meeting,” says Principal Ron DiPillo, “to showcase some of the programs we have here at Oak Park School.”

Verra-Tirado toured the school facilities, which include a therapy pool, a softer gymnasium floor, and adaptive technology that helps unlock the mental potential of students whose bodies don't cooperate.

Catherine Snowman's daughter Elizabeth has attended Oak Park since last November. The 9-year-old has Down Syndrome and is deaf. “I think it's been fantastic,” she says of the school. “A 180-degree turnaround for my daughter.”

Like Ezelle, she fears that FCAT and FAA (alternate assessment) scores for students who, in some cases, cannot feed themselves, could doom the school. She says she measures success for her daughter, whom she refers to as her “princess,” by the fact that she likes going to school and has learned her colors. “I don't think that she'll ever be fully free or independent,” Snowman says. “But if we can teach her what it takes to live, and to enjoy our life, that's our goal for her.”

Through DiPillo, Verra-Tirado declined comment on Oak Park's situation. And it's the state legislature that would have to craft a workaround to the problem that began last year when Florida got a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As part of that, the state must give grades to all of its schools, even those that serve special needs students.

In a classroom, DiPillo points out a student with cerebral palsy so severe that the boy cannot speak, or straighten his fingers, answering a question by pressing a button on his wheelchair with his head. He says that the standardized tests can help measure student progress, but that low scores do not indicate a failing school. “It was an accurate grade for the criteria,” DiPillo says. “But the criteria doesn't necessarily align with the overall mission of the school.”

A mission that includes teaching the basics not only of reading and writing, but of eating and drinking.