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School Serving Autistic Kids Fears Co-Location Plan Will Hurt Its Success

By  Amy Zimmer and Nikhita Venugopal | May 5, 2016 5:57pm 

 M.S. 442 is currently located at 317 Hoyt St. in Gowanus.
M.S. 442 is currently located at 317 Hoyt St. in Gowanus.
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Facebook/Carroll Gardens School For Innovation M.S. 442

BROOKLYN —  Parents from a small middle school with a successful program serving autistic children say the Department of Education’s rushed plans to move the school to a co-location inside a struggling high school will only end up hurting both schools.

Moreover, parents say the DOE presented plans for how their school would share the space that appeared at odds with plans presented separately to the school already in the building, which they say sets the stage for conflict rather than collaboration.

Though the DOE did agree to postpone moving M.S. 442 Carroll Gardens School for Innovation into the Cobble Hill School of American Studies until September 2017, officials are expected to file an environmental impact statement Friday on the proposed co-location, parents said.

It would then be up for a June 22 vote before the Panel for Educational Policy, but the DOE refused to confirm the timeline for the filing or the vote. 

M.S. 442 parents want the vote delayed.

The co-location, middle school parents worry, will hinder the growth of M.S. 442, an increasingly popular school in Brooklyn’s District 15 that is one of Chancellor Carmen Farina’s “showcase” schools, receiving weekly visitors from educators across the city to learn from it.

M.S. 442 would see its space shrink from 18 rooms to 13 or possibly less, leaving questions about whether the school will have space needed to provide legally-mandated therapy and support services for its much-lauded ASD Nest Program, where children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are “nested” in small-sized classrooms co-taught with general education students.

Parents also fear the co-location may impede the Cobble Hill high school, which has been fighting for years to remain open. It would likely see its enrollment reduced — effectively reducing its budget — at a time when it was making inroads to turn itself around, they said.

“We don’t know if there’s buy-in from Cobble to having a Nest program,” said Claudia Cantarella, a mother of a sixth grader with ASD, who worries about co-mingling in hallways with potentially rowdy high schoolers, who may be up to six years older than the middle school kids.

Her son and others in Nest often have difficulty reading social cues and are highly sensitive to loud noises, she said, noting how the program needs “kids and community members who are accepting.”

M.S. 442 currently shares its space with an elementary school that has an ASD program of its own. The two schools share social workers and therapists, which made a much easier transition to middle school for her son.

The DOE told M.S. 442 in December that it would need to move out of it current building, where it shares space with P.S. 32, at 317 Hoyt St., so the elementary school can build a new addition.

While DOE officials told M.S. 442 parents that it planned to move them about half a mile away to the high school building at 327 Baltic St., the Cobble Hill high school only had its first meeting on the move a few weeks ago — four months after parents from M.S. 442 requested to bring the other school into discussions.  

Plus, the principal from Cobble Hill will miss having input on the move since she’s on maternity leave and doesn’t return until June 30, parents noted.

No one from the high school returned requests for comment. Superintendents for the district referred requests for comment to the DOE. 

“At no time has either school community opposed the idea of co-location, but both communities have asked for time for real collaboration to occur,” said Jody Drezner Alperin, an M.S. 442 mom, who said the DOE has engaged her school but is seemingly ignoring the other school.

When the two schools finally had a meeting, “it became clear,” Drezner Alperin said, “that the DOE had represented polar opposite plans to each community.”

For instance, the DOE told the 600-student high school its enrollment would not be capped while it told M.S. 442 parents that the high school’s enrollment would indeed be decreased to allow eventually for more space for the middle school which currently has about 200 students, nearly half of whom have special needs.

DOE officials told the high school that room-sharing would be the norm and that classroom spaces would be jointly shared, parents said. On the other hand, officials told M.S. 442 it would get exclusive use of the third floor of the building plus a science room on the fourth floor, with shared common spaces, Drezner Alperin said.

“We have been begging the DOE for months to truly engage the community of Cobble Hill and to bring the two school communities together to forge a real and meaningful collaboration,” Drezner Alperin said. “If the engagement process is a joke, if only one community gets superficially engaged but not listened to and the other community ignored entirely, what is the point of the process? Why even have these sham proceedings and a vote?”

The DOE did not immediately respond for comment.

Leonie Haimson, of Class Size Matters, an advocacy group for smaller classes, said that co-locations often ignore the constitutional requirement on the part of the city to use the existing school space to reduce class size.

She also noted it seemed to run counter to the DOE’s preference for big rather than small schools.

DOE officials have said that schools under 250 students have difficulty providing students the range of needed supports, according to Chalkbeat.

“It's poor planning by DOE especially as they don't want to encourage schools under about 250 students and that new location won't allow this school to grow,” she said.