As a parent of a child with special needs, Beth Walla raves about the “amazing staff” and great services her daughter received at Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Ken-O-Sha Early Childhood Center @ Campus, which serves children throughout Kent County from birth through age 5. 

“Libby was never given limits,” Walla said of her daughter’s two years there. “Everybody was just trying to help her work toward her potential.”

But as 19-year teacher in Rockford Public Schools, Walla says it’s a good move to transfer operation of early childhood and other center-based programs to Kent ISD, as the Grand Rapids Board of Education approved Monday, Aug. 6. The change should make program oversight more “cohesive” for students like Libby, who’s entering kindergarten in Rockford’s cognitive impaired program this fall, her mother said. 

“The center-based programs are serving all the students in the ISD,” said Walla, a fifth-grade teacher at Lakes Elementary. “It only makes sense to have it be centered around the ISD (and that) responsibility is given to the ISD and all of the districts. It think it helps make every district be a little bit more invested in the center-based programs.”

That’s the aim of Kent ISD leaders who say they are ready to begin a seamless transition to taking over the center programs as of July 2019. The Grand Rapids school board voted 7-1 to discontinue by then operating the programs on behalf of all 20 Kent ISD school districts, currently serving 1,385 students with severe physical, mental and emotional needs. GRPS will continue serving its own special education students who don’t qualify for center programs. 

More at the Table 

Board members said the time is right to transfer the programs for the benefit of all students in Kent ISD while enabling GRPS to focus more intensively on the needs of its own students. The move makes GRPS part of collective decision-making with other districts rather than the primary overseer, proponents say. 

“GRPS is not walking away from the table, but there will be more people at the table with us,” said board Secretary Kristian Grant. “We’ve all admitted that we need some change. We need more resources, we need more staff for the students, and I’m voting thinking that that means more of that will come to the table when all of the districts are involved.” 

Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal and board President Wendy Falb have said the idea has long been under discussion and wasn’t specifically prompted by recent criticism of the district’s special education program. The vast majority of intermediate districts around the state run such programs, they point out. 

While expressing gratitude to GRPS for the “fantastic job” it has done over several decades, Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff said he and the local superintendents support the decision.

“It was important for us to follow on this, not lead,” Caniff said. “If Grand Rapids Public were not supportive of the move, we would feel otherwise. Given their support and conversations we’ve had with superintendents, it’s something that we’re embracing, and we’re ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work.” 

A Time to Listen 

They’ll begin by seeking input from parents, staff and others as part of a Kent ISD-funded review of center-based programs, commissioned this spring with consultant Beth Steenwyk. Listening sessions will be held Aug. 29 and Sept. 5 (see box), to help identify questions about the transition “so we can get to work on what those answers are,” Caniff said. 

A big question is how the GRPS staff now working at the center programs will be hired by Kent ISD if they want to transfer, and how those who wish to remain with GRPS will be placed. 

Of the 425 center program staff this year, 117 are teachers, while others are therapists, paraprofessionals and other specialists. Those who wish to follow their programs to Kent ISD will have the opportunity to apply, but it will not be an “automatic conversion,” Caniff said, acknowledging many questions must be addressed with GRPS officials and employee unions.

“Just generally, those jobs aren’t going away,” Caniff said. “Those are critical positions. We certainly are going to want to have experienced staff if they’re available in those positions and effective staff in those positions.” 

While the pay scale for Kent ISD staff is generally higher than that of GRPS, it remains to be seen what that would mean for teachers and others hired by the ISD, said Mary Bouwense, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association. She said she has gotten many questions from members about pay, whether sick days would be honored, insurance and other issues, which the GREA will “demand to bargain over.” 

“Those people are still our members and still under our contract,” said Bouwense, a former special education teacher. “We would want to make sure they get the best they can get in the transition.” 

“Those (special education) teachers are in short supply. It will be in the ISD’s best interest to retain them,” said board President Wendy Falb. 

Concerns about Transition 

Bouwense said she hopes the transfer to Kent ISD will address some of the criticisms the GREA and parents have made about GRPS special education, which continued with half a dozen parents and former teachers who complained to the board Monday night. 

Board member Jose Flores, who cast the sole dissenting vote against the transfer, said he fears the perception that GRPS has done “a lousy job” contributed to a hasty decision. 

“I just think we’re moving too fast. Without appropriate discussion I feel like we’re doing a disservice” to students, Flores said, insisting it would be “devastating” to them if they got different teachers or schools. Superintendent Neal pointed out most of the center program buildings are owned by Kent ISD, and has said GRPS is interested in renting out its own buildings housing center programs to the ISD. 

Other board members argued it makes sense for Kent ISD to run the program, and for GRPS to concentrate more resources on preparing its in-district students for graduation, college and careers. 

“This is what the ISD is set up to do, the things that individual school districts don’t have the capacity to do,” said trustee Tony Baker.

Program Origins 

Board member Maureen Slade was a student at Grand Rapids Junior College in the late 1960s when a group of GRPS parents began a program at the college for children with Down syndrome. Classes were added over time for students with other disabilities, eventually forming the center programs run by GRPS – an exception to how most programs in the state are run, she said. 

Slade worked in GRPS special education for 21 years, as a teacher, director and assistant superintendent, before becoming assistant superintendent for special education at the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency, which ran the intermediate district’s center programs. Having worked under both models, she said it’s “in the best interest of those kids” for Kent ISD to run the program. 

“The program’s grown, and it’s just right to put them at the ISD where they belong,” Slade said before Monday’s meeting. “If I hadn’t done it both ways I may not have recommended it. But I saw how well it worked at an ISD level when you’re representing all of the districts.”

GRPS and Kent ISD leaders say they’re committed to making as smooth a transition as possible for students and their relationships with staff. 

“These families, these children have had a high-quality service,” Caniff said. “We’re very confident we can continue that high level of service.”


By Charles Honey, courtesy of School News Network

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