Community rallies for D.O. program

WEYBRIDGE — More than 60 people turned out at the Addison Central Supervisory Union board’s meeting in Weybridge on Tuesday evening to issue a common plea: Don’t eliminate, or even dilute, the Diversified Occupations (D.O.) program that serves Addison County high school students with special needs.
The D.O. program 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.”
Based in the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, the program offers small academic classes in the core 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 all four supervisory unions in Addison County: Addison Central, Addison Northeast, Addison Northwest and Rutland Northeast. A consortium led by the superintendents of all four supervisory unions monitors the program along with other joint initiatives.
Participation in the program has been changing, however. Addison Northeast and Rutland Northeast no longer send students to D.O., having chosen other avenues through which to educate those with special needs. This, combined with the Agency of Education review, have forced the ACSU and Addison Northwest to take a hard look at the D.O. program’s future. Area residents were invited to share their thoughts on development of “a comprehensive system of  services for secondary students with special needs” at focus forums held last month at Middlebury and Vergennes union high schools.
The ACSU is considering taking on ownership of the program, maintaining it as a tuition-based offering with continued revenue from Addison Northwest. The current draft ACSU budget for fiscal year 2017 reflects a D.O. program with an estimated per-pupil expense of $27,000. There are currently around 30 students in the program, which maintains an annual budget in the $900,000 to $950,000 range.
Supporters on Tuesday delivered some impassioned statements chronicling how the D.O. program had served youth and urged the ACSU board to not change a thing.
Longtime local educator John Murphy urged ACSU officials to consider the long-term benefits of the D.O. program in helping make participants productive citizens, rather than dwelling on the short-term costs. He contended that ACSU is one of the lower spending supervisory unions when it comes to special education programming. He noted that during fiscal year 2014 the district spent 20 percent below the statewide average for special education.
“We recognize there is significant pressure on school budgets,” Murphy said. “We ask that you consider the costs of an individual student in the community that leaves high school without the hope for a job. The cost to the community is tremendous, and long-term.
“This is a program that has stood the test of time,” he added.
Joe Durante manages the “Help Desk” at Middlebury College, and thus places D.O. students in various jobs on campus. He said many of the students he has placed have excelled at the tasks they have been asked to perform.
“They are relied upon so much by our co-workers,” Durante said of the students. “I’m disappointed we have to defend this program.”
Bill Heminway is a longtime educator who worked for 20 years with Addison County students with disabilities. He has a child with special needs who is currently enrolled in the D.O. program.
“As the father of a son with special needs who is currently making new friends in the D.O., learning to speak for himself, becoming responsible, held to account by a small, tightly knit group of teachers who understand his challenges and more importantly his strengths and curiosity about the world, I ask you to let the program continue to provide excellent alternative education we as a community have come to expect and rely on,” Heminway said. “ACSU should embrace, polish and protect this enviable program, which has been quietly supporting and gracefully integrating into the daily fabric of our towns, the more vulnerable citizens among us.”
Tom Dematties has four children, three of whom have special needs. Pausing at times to control his emotions, Dematties spoke of how the D.O. program has helped his children become more focused and productive citizens.
“Our third boy is in the D.O. program right now, and it’s been tough for him,” Dematties said. “He’s probably one of the toughest students the teachers have ever had to have … If you don’t have a special needs child, (know that) it’s tough. We have three of them. I have to thank the D.O. program for what they are.”
Dematties said another one of his sons will be moving on to 9th grade next year and hopes to enroll in the D.O. program. But the uncertainty surrounding the future of D.O. is unsettling to the family.
“We hope he can be successful in the D.O. program, too,” he said.
TESTIMONIALS
ACSU board members listened intently to the D.O. program supporters’ concerns. Those supporters handed out binders containing more than two dozen testimonials from local parents, students, educators, counselors and business leaders advocating for a continuation of D.O.
One of the testimonials was written by ACSU board Chairman Rick Scott.
“My wife and I will be the parents of our autistic son for the rest of our lives,” he wrote in his letter. “As such, we are concerned not only about his past, current and future education, but his ability to be independent and successful as an adult.”
Scott indicated that while he is open to change, he is personally opposed to the notion of dismantling a program that he said has “not only survived, but has thrived, adapting to changes in special needs philosophies, fine tuning the curriculum to the needs and abilities of the students and establishing relationships with local employers to develop the award-winning vocational curriculum that results in employment opportunities, post-graduation for every student that wants a job.”
The ACSU board will focus more on the budget next month when more reliable state aid information becomes available. In the meantime, the D.O. program will continue to be evaluated, officials said.
Another testimonial was provided by Clifford Bell, who graduated from D.O. this past June.
“I feel really upset that my school might have to make significant changes,” he wrote. “D.O. is my favorite place to be. They help me grow more, get a job, get a driver’s license and do budgeting.
“I know I will be graduating but I want D.O. to be there for my friends,” Bell added. “I want them to have the same learning and have a place to be where they don’t get picked on.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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