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Autism program changes worry some Minneapolis parents

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Anne Ursu and her son Dash Broich
Anne Ursu said her son, Dash Broich, 8, has done well in his autism program at Burroughs Elementary School in Minneapolis. Ursu is worried changes the district is making to how it staffs the programs will mean students with autism won't get the help they need.
Courtesy Anne Ursu

Anne Ursu's 8-year old son Dash was diagnosed with autism at age 4. When it was time to start kindergarten, she enrolled him in the Citywide Autism Program at Burroughs Elementary instead of her neighborhood school. 

The program — one of several in the district that offers more intensive help for students with autism — helped her second-grade son transition into a mainstream class where he spends 70 percent of his day. 

"As soon as we got to Burroughs and saw the people who would be taking care of him, we knew that would be the right place for him," she said. 

That's why the coming changes Minneapolis will make this fall to its autism program have her worried. The district plans to spread autism teachers and special education aides across city schools, rather than concentrating programs. 

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has expressed concern, saying the district is moving too fast. Some parents were expected to ask the school board Tuesday to reconsider the idea, saying the current system works.

"Suddenly that's all being dismantled," Ursu said. "These kids who are just like ours are going to be put in their community schools without their level of support."

School district officials say that's not how they see the change playing out. They say the district's 60 autism teachers will be spread throughout Minneapolis so students with milder autism can go to their neighborhood schools. The specialized programs at schools like Burroughs will be reserved for students who need more intensive help.

"We really want to bring our special education services to our students in our neighborhood and community schools versus having our students go to the special education services," said Amy Johnson, director of special education for Minneapolis Public Schools. 

The change will help the district better serve an increasing number of students diagnosed with autism, she added. 

The district has more than 850 students with autism, a huge increase from 2000, when there were 224 diagnosed students. The jump reflects a trend around the country, and researchers generally agree it's because of better and earlier diagnoses of kids with autism. 

But it's not just numbers driving the change. Minneapolis school officials want autistic students to spend more time in general education classrooms, something districts across the country are working toward.  

Research shows including autistic students in general education classes helps them progress socially and academically, and has positive effects on other students as well, said Veronica Fleury, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development who coordinates the university's autism licensure program for teachers.  

Still, that integration doesn't happen without help, she added. "There needs to be some supports in place for the students and also the educators that are involved with instruction."

Minneapolis school officials assure parents the district will have staff trained in autism education in place throughout the district by fall so students with milder forms of autism can get the help they need in their neighborhood school. 

And to avoid disruption, they say they won't pull students already in an autism program out of their current schools, regardless of their needs.