Special education offering faces big changes at same time that it receives big kudos

MIDDLEBURY — You’ll have to excuse educators with the county’s Diversified Occupations (D.O.) program if they are a little perplexed these days.
On the one hand, the Vermont Public Broadcasting Service has just hailed D.O. as one of four exemplary “champions” of education in Vermont for 2015, an honor that will include an award and a televised tribute during the month of September.
On the other hand, D.O. is being sized up for some major changes in response to a Vermont Agency of Education review that recommends more mainstreaming of students within the program, which serves high school students up to age 22  “with specific academic, vocational and behavioral needs,” according to its website.
“I think we would all agree, those of us in the D.O. Program, that we have a phenomenal, successful, incredibly valuable program,” said Iain Hoefle, one of five D.O. teachers who also serve as case managers. “It is disconcerting to hear that there will probably be some changes — potentially significant changes — because we all care about the kids, and it’s the kids who would lose if you change this program significantly.”
Based in the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury, the program offers small academic classes in the basic subject areas, along with vocational training within the school and in the community. Each participant is expected to have a job in place and to have learned the skills necessary for independent living once he or she graduates.
The D.O. program was established during the 1970s as a combined effort of four supervisory unions in Addison County: Addison Central, Addison Northeast, Addison Northwest and Rutland Northeast. A consortium led by the superintendents of all four school districts monitors the program along with other joint initiatives.
Vicki Wells, ACSU’s director of student services, said each supervisory union covers expenses for the students it sends to D.O. Those expenses are reimbursed to the tune of around 56 percent under the state’s special education formula, according to Wells, who added the annual budget for the program has been in the $900,000 to $950,000 range.
“It is completely tuition-based,” she said.
Student referrals are usually provided through 8th-grade educators and/or special education coordinators within the sending supervisory unions.
Local school officials have praised the program for its success in producing high graduation rates for a student population that would likely struggle in a conventional school setting. The initiative offers low student-teacher ratios, individual tutoring, counseling and a lot of hands-on training that allows the young participants to learn at their own pace. It has also offered some outside-the-box learning opportunities, such as owl and raptor banding; a longboat building project and related races in collaboration with the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum; a student banking program; and an annual, four-day trip to Washington, D.C., where students meet with politicians and learn first-hand how the federal government works.
There are currently around 30 students enrolled in D.O., with the vast majority of them hailing from the ACSU-member towns of Middlebury, Shoreham, Cornwall, Weybridge, Salisbury, Ripton and Bridport. Enrollment has been as high as 44, according Hoefle.
It should also be noted, according to Wells, that Addison Northeast and Rutland Northeast have essentially stopped sending students to the D.O. program and are instead accommodating those individuals within their on-campus programming. Meanwhile, Addison Northwest has been sending fewer students in recent years.
That enrollment trend, coupled with a Vermont Agency of Education recommendation that D.O. students spend more time in the regular classroom setting, will drive some changes in the program starting in the 2016-2017 academic year, officials said. Wells reported those changes will be mapped out in the coming months, though one thing is clear — starting July 1 of next year, D.O. will cease to be a collaboration of the four supervisory unions and will fall squarely under the umbrella of its biggest user: the ACSU. Still, ANwSU wants to remain a partner in D.O., according to Wells.
“What that means at this point has not yet been determined,” Wells said of the transition. “This will be a year of planning.”
Plans call for a series of stakeholder forums to get public input on possible changes to D.O., Well said.
Parents of D.O. students and those who staff the program are concerned about potential big changes to an offering they said has been very successful.
Among them is Stacy Stone, whose daughter Hillary is in her final year at D.O. and has what Stone called “significant special needs.” Stone helped organize a Friends of D.O. organization made up of parents and other supporters who advocate for the program and raise money for field trips and additional student amenities. For example, when recent budget cuts resulted in elimination of a driver’s education position that had been assigned to D.O., the friends group raised enough money to restore it.
Stone believes her daughter has benefitted greatly from D.O. And though her daughter will be leaving the program before any changes take effect, she wants to preserve it for future special needs children.
“I feel very strongly that the program needs to stay the way it is,” Stone said during a phone conversation while helping another one of her children settle in to college.
“My daughter would’ve survived, but she would not have thrived (in the regular classroom setting).”
She added her daughter began the program as a shy person with limited verbal skills. She is now giving classroom presentations.
“Students in this program gain so much more confidence and self-esteem,” Stone said.
Addison Northeast Superintendent David Adams said the D.O. program has established itself as a good program with a strong staff, but believes it is now representative of an “older model” of delivering special education services in a separate setting.
Addison Northeast, according to Adams, has not sent students to D.O. for the past three years.
“We have found, within our current population, staffing and faculty to provide (special education services) in-house and meet the students’ needs,” Adams said of the ANeSU.
And services provided in-house, Adams added, are almost always less costly than those provided off-site through a tuition system.
“It is above and beyond the (state per-pupil) block grant,” Adams said of the D.O. tuition expense. “It’s a substantial cost.”
So ACSU officials will ultimately determine the future of the D.O. program. The UD-3 school board will also discuss D.O. within the context of the budget for Middlebury Union middle and high schools.
Peter Conlon is chairman of the UD-3 board.
“We will get a recommendation from the ACSU administration that we will review and probably follow,” Conlon said. “It will probably have a budget impact. But what the program will look like is not something we will have much to do with. We will want to maintain the best parts of the D.O. program so it best serves UD-3 students.”
While D.O. officials anxiously await news on the future of the program, they can take solace in the fact the program has gained some statewide recognition. It has been declared one of four statewide “champions” of education by Vermont PBS, an honor that carries an award and television coverage.
Charles Pizer is community engagement director for Vermont PBS. He noted for the past two years, Vermont PBS has been involved in an initiative called “Story of Champions” in recognition of American Graduate Day on Oct. 3. The initiative springs from the corporation’s desire to help further knowledge among young people and bring up the lagging high school graduation rates in the country.
Pizer, during the course of his outreach for PBS, annually flags several educational programs that he believes are doing a particularly great job in enabling students to earn high school diplomas. He recently announced his 2015 “champions” of education for Vermont: State Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe; Jeff Spaulding, the new chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges; Spectrum Youth & Family Services, an organization that helps at-risk kids; and Addison County’s D.O. program.
Pizer called D.O. one of the top programs he has seen in the state in providing students with diverse opportunities to excel and graduate.
“They are doing a tremendous service to these kids, providing them the opportunity to and the skills to be productive when they leave high school,” Pizer said.
Vermont PBS officials gained an understanding and admiration for D.O. while filming its hawk banding program for two segments for the PBS’s “Outdoor Journal” television show. Neil Hilt, a producer and director at Vermont PBS, was behind the camera for the filming of those segments. He was impressed with the students’ prowess in the field and how they shared their experiences with students at Mary Hogan Elementary School and Middlebury College.
Vermont PBS show will air its segments on the D.O. program intermittently through the month of September, up to “American Graduate Day,” which is Saturday, Oct. 3, when a lengthier program will be shown. The segments will also be available for viewing through the Vermont PBS website, under vermontpbs.org/champions.
D.O. officials were pleased to see the program singled out by Vermont PBS.
 “Its an incredible honor,” said Polly Wilson, a D.O. teacher/case manager. “I think for the families of the student alumni and parents of current students, it gives them a chance to stand tall. Unfortunately, the special education population, overall, tends to be marginalized, especially in this day and age of all the testing … And all of a sudden, we have an opportunity to say, ‘These kids are outstanding.’”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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