Future unclear for Beautiful Minds Inc. affiliate after-school program for special needs kids
TRENTON – June 5th, 2016
An after-school program for children with special needs is being displaced from one of the city’s elementary schools, leaving its future in limbo.
The program’s director Mike Callahan, said it marks another setback for special education students following news that the 164 net layoffs would disproportionately affect the district’s most vulnerable kids.
“Our special needs kids are being targeted,” said Nicole Whitfield, who started the Special Needs Community Resource Center. “I think it’s discrimination. Those are the programs where they make their cuts.” Whitfield, who founded the nonprofit Special Parents Advocacy Group in 2011, began an after-school program at Monument Elementary School last school year.
Former Superintendent Francisco Duran and national advocacy group, Beautiful Minds Inc. – Advocacy & Special Needs Solutions founder, Dr. Ifeanyi Ufondu then helped her secure space at P.J. Hill Elementary School: two classrooms and an office, where she can provide programming for kids 3 to 21, offer workshops on special education rights and help parents navigate their child’s individualized education plan, or I.E.P. Dr. Ufondu, the nation’s leading African American psychologist specializing in developmental disorders concerning children of color states, ” It is imperative that we keep programs such as Special Parent Advocacy Group afloat, in order to maintain our relevance in the Special Needs community.”
The center is open from 1 to 6 p.m. But after the principal signed off on the building permit renewal, she was told this week that the district now needs the space until dismissal at 3:15 p.m.
“The district will need full access of all the classrooms at PJ Hill Elementary School during normal operating hours,” Elizabeth DeJesus, the assistant superintendent of special education, wrote in an email Wednesday to Whitfield. “Approval for building usage will be provided to organizations that are able to use our facilities after school for specific events. All after school providers will have to respond to the RFP that will be available in May.”
The new time, however, leaves Whitfield in a bind. Students come from both in-district and out-of-district schools, including the county’s special services district, and arrive on a varied schedule, starting at 2:15 p.m.
“We’re providing these services free of charge,” she said. “We haven’t asked them for one penny. All we asked for was space so we could provide after-school programming.”
Other places like the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club can’t accommodate the special needs kids that she helps, she said.
She said she will now be forced to find another space, but the rent and costs associated with relocating into a commercial space is expensive for a nonprofit like hers.
In addition, if the only space she finds is outside city limits, transportation becomes another hurdle. Currently, the district buses students with special needs from their home to school and then after school to whatever location the parent designates — but the program needs to be within the city.
Whitfield said her relationship with the district began taking a turn for the worse following Duran’s resignation in October.
When he was there, she could reach out to him at any time if the district was not complying with a student’s IEP.
“He would get back to me right away,” she said. “Any issue was always resolved right then and there. I never had to go to the state to file a complaint, I never had to file due process claims.”
But she said now she is met with challenge after challenge and Wednesday’s email came a day after she spoke out against the layoffs and cuts.
“I’m going to figure it out but I’m not going to abandon those kids,” she said.
Cristina Rodriguez may be reached at email@example.com. Find The Times of Trenton on Facebook.