L.A. Now

Relocation of special-needs program irks parents

On a typical school day, Asher Windberry struts like a rock star into the main office at Mariners Elementary School.

Donning his trucker hat and favorite pair of neon shades, he smiles, raising his hand to high-five school staff as he makes his way, mom in tow, to his preschool class.

But the 4-year-old's personality didn't always shine through so brightly, mom Melissa Windberry explained.

When Asher turned 2, Windberry noticed he wasn't progressing as quickly as other toddlers. He wasn't talking or pointing at objects like other children on the playground.

The boy was diagnosed with autism at 3, and Windberry put him into Newport-Mesa Unified's special needs preschool at Mariners. Though she was initially hesitant, the school turned out to be what Asher needed.

"The program has truly changed our lives," she said. "He's not the baby that I dropped off the first day. He's a little boy that runs and plays with his friends. I'm so thankful to the district for that."

While many parents credit the preschool with their children's progress, several families are at odds with the district over a recent decision to relocate the program from Mariners, which is on Irvine Avenue and Mariners Drive in Newport Beach, to Davis Magnet School near Arlington Drive and Fairview Road in Costa Mesa in the fall.

Newport-Mesa officials assert that the move was made to free up classroom space at Mariners. However, preschool parents are concerned that the transfer will hinder their children's progress, which they say will place them at a disadvantage.

"Asher loves seeing his classmates at the park by our house and at birthday parties," Windberry said, adding that its easier for him to build relationships with other kids if he sees them more frequently.

Parents also believe the move is an effort by the school community to oust their kids, who they say are the target of complaints.

"There's been talk of the kids being too loud, so loud that their own kids can't concentrate," said parent Eric Beach. "This whole thing is just a skirt on getting them out of Mariners."

The district denies the parents' claims that complaints motivated the transfer to Davis.

Mariners' pre-K program is one of eight special needs preschools in the district.

The location, which has been open for three years, served 18 children this school year, said district spokeswoman Laura Boss.

Each of the district's preschools are open to any special-needs students living in Costa Mesa or Newport Beach. Although the students can go to any of the preschools, they are typically assigned to the one closest to their homes.

Because Mariners has the most students of any elementary campus — 780 — in the district, administrators have taken steps to free up the limited classroom space, Boss said.

Principal Pam Coughlin began working with the district this school year to come up with a plan to free up space on the crowded campus, according to a letter sent to the school community.

Ultimately, they decided to move the special-needs preschool to free up two classroom spaces for a computer lab and music room.

Davis was the only school that had two open classrooms available to house both of the preschool classes, Boss said.

The Mariners' music program has been operating without a permanent space on campus for several years. A computer lab is also a necessity on campus to meet the demands of the new Smarter Balanced Assessments handed down by the state with the implementation this year of Common Core curriculum.

"The relocation of the [preschool] district program will allow us to move forward with our goals to provide additional educational spaces for our current programs to better serve Mariners' students," Coughlin wrote in a letter to parents.

Coughlin went on to explain that the quality of the preschool will continue, regardless of where it is housed.

"…the district's program is sound, and no matter where the program is physically located, the best interests of the students are at the forefront of the district's selection of their new home," she wrote.

Coughlin could not be reached for further comment.

Amy Griffiths, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with the Center for Autism in Santa Ana, said that moving a child with special needs, especially a child with autism, can result in a variety of negative behaviors.

"Kids with autism have difficulty transitioning from one project to another or one place to another," she said. "It doesn't mean they can't do it, it just takes time to make them comfortable."

When children with autism are moved to a new location, behaviors such as crying, becoming disruptive or aggression can materialize. Communication skills could also decline as a result.

"You'll often see these behaviors because they're feeling uncomfortable or confused about the new environment," she said. "In a new environment, some kids are going to be more reserved and shut down for a while."

However, allowing kids to visit Davis and showing them pictures of the new campus will help make the transition easier, Griffiths said.

"The students are established at Mariners," Windberry said. "It doesn't make sense to uproot them for a music room and a computer lab."

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World