Parents form committee to advocate for special needs students in Steamboat |

Parents form committee to advocate for special needs students in Steamboat

Parents of special needs students in Steamboat Springs have formed a committee to try to ensure their children are getting the services they are entitled to after federal officials said this spring they were “concerned” that wasn’t happening.

Pete Wood addressed the board of education during public comments on Monday, Aug. 8, saying he hoped this group will have scheduled time with district leaders to discuss issues about student care in school and solutions to any shortfalls.

“We need to completely turn the chapter and start fresh,” Wood said, adding that the group isn’t about pointing fingers. “I think we’re in a great opportunity to look forward in a positive way to correct where we are.”

The district’s new Superintendent Celine Wicks said Monday that she thought forming the committee was “fantastic,” and such a group has often been involved in previous districts where she has worked. 

“If something needs to be changed, then it is a great influence for change,” Wicks said. “I want to listen to people who have students and their needs. That’s important for sure.”

Like many employers in the Yampa Valley, staffing problems hampered the district for much of the last school year. This was particularly noticeable among special education paraprofessionals who work closely with these students throughout the school day.

Parents raised concerns in December that low staffing in these positions was leading to their children not getting the services to which they are legally entitled.

In May, Steamboat Pilot & Today obtained a letter from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that said the office was concerned a lack of staffing had prevented the district from meeting its obligations for special needs students.

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Then-Superintendent Brad Meeks signed a voluntary agreement with the Office of Civil Rights in April that requires the district to outline how it plans to achieve full staffing levels. The agreement is not an admission of any wrongdoing.

In June, the school board approved a new deal with the Steamboat Springs Education Association, the local teachers union, that gives paraprofessionals a $4.28 an hour raise across the board. Depending on their current pay rate, that amounts to an increase between 13% and 26%.

The district is currently advertising special education paraprofessional job openings at every school in the district.

Wood, who applied for a vacant position on the school board this spring but was not appointed to the position, said the group called the Special Education Advisory Committee has met once already. He hoped future meetings would be attended by at least one school board member.

The committee includes parents with special needs students, staff that work with them and a few other community members. Wood said meetings would be held monthly for 90 minutes for at least six months. Then the group will reassess the meeting schedule with a goal of eventually holding meetings quarterly.

Ginger Johnston, the parent who filed the complaint that led to the district’s agreement with the Office of Civil Rights, said the idea dates back to a meeting in November among district officials and parents.

“It’s pretty common to have these committees on the Front Range and elsewhere in Colorado,” Johnston said. “We feel like it’s a solution to some of the problems we’ve had in the last year.”

Johnston said the committee is about creating a positive atmosphere where parents and educators can work together to ensure these students are given the education they are legally entitled to.

While the big issue in the past year has been staffing, Johnston said there are other areas where having the administration meet with parents and staff can lead to better outcomes for students.

“Parents and educators have a unique perspective in regards to what works, what doesn’t work, and we want to be able to share those things with each other and with administration,” Johnston said. “Hearing from the people who actually work hands on with these kids, or the parents who know a lot about these kids, should be valuable to the administration.”

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