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L.A. Unified's change in school for the blind draws outrage

Shift from a separate Frances Blend campus to joint arrangement with Van Ness Elementary is part of a district plan to integrate learning. Not everyone approves.

June 22, 2013|By Dalina Castellanos, Los Angeles Times
  • At Frances Blend school, a teacher bangs on a hoop rim to help a visually impaired third-grader shoot for the basket.
At Frances Blend school, a teacher bangs on a hoop rim to help a visually impaired… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at Frances Blend Elementary on the last day of school.

Boxes of pastries were picked over by teachers and staff as they smiled and wished each other a good summer vacation. Aides and office personnel gave out hugs and accepted gifts from students.

But the Larchmont school, as they know it, will be different come fall. The beloved special school for the blind will join with neighboring Van Ness Elementary to create what's called "an integrated learning community," Los Angeles Unified School District officials said.

The change is part of the district's larger plan to join its special schools that serve students with physical and learning disabilities with traditional schools.

"Special education shouldn't be a place; it should be access to programs," said Sharyn Howell, executive director of L.A. Unified's special-education division.

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and the state education code require that school districts provide students with disabilities the support and services "that they require … in the least restrictive environment," Howell said.

L.A. Unified, the nation's second-largest school system, is in the process of shifting its 82,765 special-education students into traditional schools. Only 2,190 of those students still attend separate special-education centers.

"The district doesn't have plans to close the options of special schools within the district but does have a commitment of serving students at general education sites unless there is a compelling reason … that the services cannot be provided at the school," Howell said.

Still, the transition has sparked some outrage among former members of Blend's staff and parents at other special schools.

A few dozen parents spoke out at a school board meeting last week to protest the mergers.

The changes are "inappropriate and unsafe," according to Cecilia Sanchez, whose 9-year-old daughter attends Benjamin Banneker Special Education Center in San Pedro. She will be moved to Avalon Gardens Elementary.

Though her daughter — who has cerebral palsy and is mobile with the help of a wheelchair — has art classes at neighboring Avalon Gardens, Sanchez worries that more time on the campus could be dangerous.

The campus doesn't have a fence surrounding it, and walkways lead straight to the street, she said. If left unattended, her daughter's wheelchair could easily roll into the street.

"I would be more comfortable [with the changes] if the students had proper adult supervision," Sanchez said. "But right now the teachers and aides can't be with every child at all times."

Joy Efron, who served as Blend's principal for 22 years, sent a message to her former students, parents and allies such as Shirley Kirk, a former coordinator of the district's program for the visually impaired, asking them to write letters to district officials, including Howell and Supt. John Deasy, to stop the change.

"Parents' and students' rights are being violated in the LAUSD because students who need special schools are being denied such placement," Efron said in an email.

Efron said special schools are in federal and state law as part of the options for students in special education. These students should be placed in separate schools if deemed necessary, she said.

"It's a little school, but it's a really important option to have for visually impaired students," said Kirk, who oversaw the program from 2004 to 2011.

"For some students, having a school like Frances Blend is the thing that moves them forward in their development. Something as simple as learning to open a milk carton is difficult," she said.

Efron said the change is a thinly veiled attempt to close the 87-year-old school. It was previously the Blind and Sight Saving School on the 32nd Street School campus and was renamed after its first principal, Frances Blend, in 1952.

Their letters protesting the closure went unanswered, Efron said.

"No one acknowledged they even received them," she said.

Howell pointed out there was no campus closure to protest.

"I see this as an evolving process over the years," Howell said. "Students will be in the classrooms they're already in. We're not sending them into reading or math classes, but art or library periods. Sometimes the music class might be in the Blend part or Van Ness part of the facility."

The decision was not financial, she said. The combined school will have the same total number of aides, teachers and custodial staff as the separate schools had. The Blend principal will become an assistant principal under the new arrangement.

Howell said Blend's parents were alerted to the changes and signed off on their children's education plans, which now cite Van Ness Elementary as the campus location.

The school will be renamed — and will be a combination of Van Ness and Blend. A committee of teachers and parents will make the final decision over which school's name will come first.

dalina.castellanos@latimes.com

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