NEW SPRINGVILLE — Mary Celi never could have imagined that her 10-year-old son Francis would be able to eat lunch alongside his classmates at P.S. 69.
Francis, who is on the autism spectrum, used to get overwhelmed by the big groups of people in the cafeteria and withdraw into himself.
But, thanks to a program at the Staten Island school that was tailor-made for kids with autism, he's made huge strides, Celi said.
But now she fears her son's hard-won gains could be lost when he graduates from P.S. 69 this spring and moves across the street to I.S. 72, which parents and advocates worry lacks experience in serving children with autism.
"He's made a lot of progress," Celi said. "I never thought my son would want to eat in the lunchroom. They've come so far [at P.S. 69] — I feel like sending them across the street will set them back."
Celi and other parents of fifth-graders on the spectrum at P.S. 69 are speaking out after learning that the Department of Education planned for their kids to move to sixth grade at I.S. 72, which parents said has a very different approach to special education.
On a recent tour of I.S. 72, parents from P.S. 69 were alarmed to see that special education students are separated from general education students at all times, eating lunch in a computer room rather than in the cafeteria with all the other kids.
"That's counter productive to ASD [autism spectrum disorders]," said Jennifer Parsons, whose son Joseph, 11, is in the fifth-grade autism class at P.S. 69.
"They need to learn how to integrate with their general education peers. Now it's like we're going backwards, we're going to put them in an institution."
At P.S. 69, the students have been learning in what is known as an 8:1:1 classroom, with eight students, one teacher and one paraprofessional. They learn the standard general education curriculum for their grade, take all state tests and eat lunch and have recess with their typical peers.
At I.S. 72, the kids will still be in an 8:1:1 classroom, but they will be separated from their general education schoolmates, and they also won't have any teachers specially trained to work with autistic students, the parents said they were told on the tour.
Also, at I.S. 72, special education students who tantrum or display behavioral problems are removed from the classroom, rather than being taught coping strategies so that they learn how to cope with triggers, as is done at P.S. 69, parents said.
"That is not what you do — you do not remove them from the situation like that," Parsons said. "We've worked so hard to prevent our kids from that behavior, our teachers at 69 have worked with them to prevent that behavior."
I.S. 72 is also larger than P.S. 69, with a more than 1,300 students, compared to P.S. 69's 929 kids. The shift that could be overwhelming, parents worry.
"We feel like it's not the right choice for them," Celi said. "We feel like they're setting them up to fail."
Parents and advocates said they felt the DOE completely ignored their concerns in deciding where the P.S. 69 kids would go after graduating fifth grade.
"Instead of us sitting down to try and discuss appropriate options for our children, we've been told this is the school and this is where you're going," said Andrea Lella, CEO of Families Helping Families NYC, an organization dedicated to provide support for disabilities.
"This program [for kids with autism at P.S. 69] was developed by parents, it was proposed to the district by parents, and then suddenly [there is] a different administration, a different chancellor, and parents aren't even part of it," she said.
Lella said parents are willing to sue to get the DOE to pay for private school for their kids if the city can't provide a satisfactory public school option.
"If the DOE digs in their heels, the parents are all going to sue for private," she said.
The Department of Education plans to hold a meeting with parents soon to find a solution, a spokesman said.
"The DOE is aware of the concerns and has been working with both the parents and school leadership to resolve the issue," Marcus Liam, a DOE spokesman, said in an email.
"We remain committed to continuing discussions with parents about establishing appropriate special education programs for students with autism attending 8:1:1 classes. A meeting with parents is planned later this month to further hear their concerns as well as explore program options."
However, parents said that something has to been done soon, because they don't have time to waste.
"It's not fair for our kids now, for the next three years, that we have to fight with a school that has no training," Parsons said. "Before you know it, they're going to be in eighth grade. It's going to be a waste of time for them academically.
"Then what are going to do with our children? How are they going to be productive members of society? They have the potential to do it — we need to give them the tools."