Task force assists disabled students in Allegheny County

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Susan Wuenstel of Green Tree has seen her 15-year-old autistic son flourish in Keystone Oaks School District.

And she wants other Allegheny County families who have children with intellectual disabilities to know there is an organization that can help.

Mrs. Wuenstel is chairwoman of the Local Task Force in Allegheny County for the Right to Education, which meets monthly at the Intermediate Unit offices at the Waterfront in Homestead. The organization works with the 42 suburban school districts in the county; the city of Pittsburgh has its own task force.

Since a landmark federal court decision 40 years ago guaranteeing disabled children the right to a free public education, parents and educators have experimented with what works best for each child.

Most parents agree that schools and special education programs have come a long way since the ruling. But each child's strengths and weaknesses are different, and school districts vary in their programs.

Perhaps a first-grader with autism is having difficulty focusing and needs an aide in the classroom. Or a teenage boy needs an extra socialization program to better adjust. Or maybe a 19-year-old with Down syndrome is searching for a job training program after high school graduation.

"Some parents want home schooling, others want mainstreaming [in regular public school classrooms], and others want a private school," Mrs. Wuenstel said. Some parents may need wraparound services that are in addition to school.

The 1972 federal consent decree was the result of a lawsuit brought by the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children against the state, and it said school districts must provide effective and appropriate education for students with disabilities. That has resulted in IEPs, or an Individual Education Plan, for each child that is determined after parents, school officials and special education representatives meet.

The local task force can provide families with a host of resources and references for experienced agencies, programs and volunteer organizations. Intermediate Unit and mental health representatives attend every monthly meeting, Mrs. Wuenstel said.

Josh Wuenstel is a sophomore at Keystone Oaks High School, and his mother says he has had good support and teachers throughout his school years.

He was diagnosed at 41/2, and his parents used early intervention programs at the AIU. "His speech was delayed and he had slow motor skills development," she said, "but his preschool was fantastic, and he was mainstreamed in school."

Now he mainly needs help with organization and focus, she said, and social skills.

"He needs to gauge other people's body language better, if they are bored, for instance," she said.

"Josh likes who he is, and we're working on him being a self advocate. He still has trouble looking you in the eye. A lot of autistic children have a deficit when it comes to social skills.

"He has an autistic support system at the school district," she said. "That isn't always a place. Some kids spend more time in the support classroom, or maybe one student will need a full-time aide to be in the regular classroom. Another may attend an adaptive home ec class or an adaptive physical education class, or they could spend the bulk of their day in an autistic classroom.

"In high school, his support has been very intermittent," said Mrs. Wuenstel of her son. "Often, his support teacher will say, 'You don't need me, Josh.' "

The family's focus now has moved to what Josh will do after high school.

"He loves drawing, and he wanted to be a cartoonist at one point. He just attended a summer art camp. But he also loves animals; we have a cat and we have a hamster from school for the summer. So we're looking at vet tech programs, too."

"I can't imagine any other life now, we have met so many good people, and he's happy doing his thing," she said. On Friday, Josh and a friend and his parents were off to Kennywood for the day.

Debbie Efkeman of Hampton has been active with the local task force for 25 years.

Her daughter Kate, 29, who has Down syndrome, currently has two jobs -- she works two days a week at Giant Eagle and three days as a clerk at an agency.

"She is working and she loves her jobs," Mrs. Efkeman said. "Like most of us, her identity is connected to her work. And she likes to tell people she is getting paid. And believe me, she helps the economy. She has a Visa card, and she uses it."

"Unemployment for those with disabilities is pretty high," she said. "The rate can be 67 percent, for those who are unemployed or underemployed. These kids are used to being with everyone during high school, so you don't want them just sitting around after graduation."

Job training is a big area of concentration for special education at the high school level today, she said.

"At times, I had to fight for my daughter," she said. "But I had an enlightened administration at Hampton."

Part of the battle back then was inclusion -- being in a regular classroom.

"My daughter was the first child to be included in Hampton," she said.

There was a debate among special education experts whether the regular classroom, or a special education classroom, was the best place for children with disabilities.

"But it became apparent that if the kids don't get educated together, the chance of them being successful in the real world is slim," she said.

"At the beginning, there were a lot fewer students with disabilities in the classes, so everybody was learning together," she said.

And learning what "effective practices" are for students with special needs -- whether they have autism or Down syndrome -- has changed over the years as well.

"The local task force helped me, as did school district parent groups," she said, and now she helps other families.

Mrs. Efkeman works for the Pennsylvania Education and Advocacy Leadership Center in the Strip District and trains school districts and organizations on the law and what programs are effective.

"We've seen a lot of growth in school districts over the years," she said. "We have more students included and welcomed in their home school districts now."

Find out more about the local task force, which meets at 7 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month, at www.ltf3.org.

Parents can call the parental assistance phone line at 412-394-5930.

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Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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