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What about Alyiah?

Photo: Benjamin Herold

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Nine-year-old Alyiah Pegues started her school career three years ago at Daroff Elementary in West Philadelphia.

Alyiah, who has Down syndrome, didn’t say a single word during her entire first year.

“When she started [school], she wasn’t talking, she wasn’t potty-trained, all that,” said Sandra Montique, Alyiah’s teacher for nearly her entire time in Daroff’s Life Skills Support (LSS) program. “It just takes a while for a lot of Down’s kids to get used to a new situation.”

One of 98 such programs serving approximately 1,200 students in the District, Daroff’s LSS classes are designed to provide severely disabled children with the services and skills they will need to function independently. Of the 21 LSS students at Daroff, Alyiah is one of seven with Down syndrome. Others have cerebral palsy, mental retardation, autistic tendencies, and Fragile X syndrome.

Daroff’s LSS program, which has been in place for over 20 years, is a point of pride for the school and surrounding community.

So in March, when the District designated Daroff a Renaissance School, potentially slated for conversion into a charter, there was tremendous concern about the program’s future. During the subsequent process of choosing a “turnaround” provider, Daroff’s School Advisory Council (SAC) repeatedly stressed that maintaining the school’s LSS program was the “most critical area [of concern] to the Daroff family.”

In May, based on the SAC’s recommendation, the District tapped Universal Companies to convert Daroff into a charter. Both the District and Universal say the LSS program will stay there, run by Universal.

Whether it will be as comprehensive as what the District now provides, however, is unclear – and will be an important test of the District’s promise that Renaissance Schools will continue to serve the same students.

Universal, which currently runs one charter school and manages two other District schools as an educational management organization, does not now serve any high-needs special education students.

Alyiah’s mother, Lorraina Pegues, is one of many who are concerned.

“I’m totally worried about what’s going to happen to Alyiah. I love that [LSS] program. I can’t see them taking it away,” said Pegues.

District officials have repeatedly tried to allay fears that the LSS program will disappear altogether.

“All types of programs [for the severely disabled] have a certain caseload,” said Benjamin Rayer, who is heading up the District’s Renaissance initiative. “We’re going to have an arrangement with [Renaissance charter] providers to maintain the current caseloads.”

That means the District intends to preserve special education programs for students with severe needs – referred to as “low-incidence” because they are not as common – at Renaissance schools where they now exist as regional centers. In addition to the LSS program at Daroff, there are autistic support programs at three other schools slated for charter conversion – Bluford, Dunbar, and Smedley elementary schools.

All together, the low-incidence programs at the Renaissance elementary schools currently serve 50 students.

But while the District has been clear that the programs will continue, it has offered scant details about how they will function in neighborhood schools that become charters. Rayer said that the charter operator will be required to either provide equivalent services itself or contract them out. The District’s obligation “is to provide a fair and equitable funding arrangement,” he said.

David Lapp, an attorney at the Education Law Center, which advocates for special-needs students, said that the District has the authority to hold charter operators accountable for providing adequate services to this population. “This authority can be explicitly laid out in the charter agreements,” he said. “Failure to do so could ultimately result in these schools serving fewer [severely disabled] students and providing fewer services to those students than are currently provided by the District.”

The District has yet to spell out its monitoring standards for Renaissance providers regarding special education students. The Education Law Center and the Cross Cities Campaign have been working on suggested language emphasizing the type of accountability that Lapp described.

But it is already evident that Daroff’s LSS program will look radically different next year than it has for the last 20.

Currently, Alyiah and her LSS classmates at Daroff have long-term teachers who stay with them for three years at a time. Both Sandra Montique, who teaches the five- to eight-year-olds, and Sheila Adams, who works with the eight- to eleven-year-olds, have been in the District since 1982. Adams has been at Daroff since 1990, Montique since 2000. Both are certified in special education.

Neither teacher will be back.

Montique had already decided to retire. Adams, after being automatically force-transferred as part of the Renaissance process, declined to reapply for her current position under Universal because doing so would have meant the loss of her union representation as a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).

“[I’m not going to stay at Daroff] unless Universal is going to offer me a contract like the PFT’s. I’ve been in the District for 23 years. I’m not trying to throw that away,” said Adams.

According to Rayer, Universal will be expected to staff the entire school, including the LSS program, with teachers it hires. Universal has said that it will bring back no more than 50 percent of the current staff.

Universal will also be expected to provide all the related support services – speech, occupational, and physical therapy, as well as community outings – that the children are legally entitled to as part of their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

Currently, those services are provided by the District’s Office of Specialized Services. Many children with Down syndrome, for example, need speech therapy to help them talk more clearly. A student in Adams’ class receives occupational therapy to help her build up the hand strength she will need to eventually be able to grip a pencil. As part of their IEPs, the children take trips into the neighborhood to learn how to stand in line to order food, understand traffic signals, and become comfortable interacting with other people.

All that will now be Universal’s responsibility.

“It will be just like when a [traditional] charter school is assigned a student with an IEP,” explained Rayer. Under Pennsylvania’s charter law, schools get more money per pupil for special education students than for regular education students. In Philadelphia, the special education allotment is more than twice the regular education allotment.

But in the schools it currently operates, Universal, like most charter operators, does not serve any students with disabilities and needs as profound as Alyiah’s.

Now, despite its lack of experience, Universal has barely three months to prepare a plan for not only meeting the needs of the 21 LSS students on Daroff’s roster, but also handling the additional fallout that will likely result from the loss of continuity that is so important to so many of the children.

Representatives from Universal were reluctant to provide specifics about their plans, saying only that they are still working to get clear information from the District on a number of issues and that they have “budgeted adequately” for Daroff’s LSS population and Bluford’s autistic support students.

Advocates have questioned whether the arrangement is viable.

“It worries me that providers that have no experience with these students will now be rushing to get a program together by the fall,” said Len Rieser, ELC’s longtime director.

He also said that because these “low-incidence” programs draw students from a wide area, the District might decide in the future that it needs to expand a program’s caseload. “Will it be able to do that at one of these charters, or can the charter say that they only signed on to operate the [caseload] they already have? There’s a lot that is unclear here.”

The lack of detailed information has Lorraina Pegues increasingly concerned for her daughter.

“That girl has made a lot of progress. The Life Skills program has Alyiah doing things I never thought she’d do,” said Pegues.

It took a year, but Alyiah eventually began to talk in class. Last year, she wrote her name for the first time – prompting a classroom celebration that left her smiling and eager to repeat the feat. Alyiah is now reading at a pre-K level, improving her handwriting, and slowly learning how to become self-sufficient in the world.

“You’ve got to be qualified [to teach in an LSS program],” said Pegues. “Alyiah is real stubborn. She’ll just sit there, and you can’t move her. Ms. Montique made a difference with her patience.”

This skill and persistence are exactly what Pegues fears will disappear with the coming changes.

“From what I’ve heard about charter schools, they’re not patient like that,” she said, referring to the widely held perception that many charter schools counsel out students with special needs and behavioral problems.

If the LSS program at Daroff does change for the worse, Alyiah and her mother will have limited options. There are LSS programs at Leidy Elementary School in West Philadelphia and Penrose Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia, but neither is readily accessible by public transportation for Pegues, who does not own a car. The District does provide transportation for its special education students, sometimes by taxi.

“Alyiah’s the love my life,” said Pegues. “She’s closer to me than anything. When she needs me, I have to be there.”

The uncertainty has left her hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

“Maybe [Daroff becoming a charter] will be good,” Pegues allows. “But I don’t think it’s going to be good for Alyiah.”

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