AIKEN - Hugh Ray says New Ellenton Middle School should not be closed because he believes its enrollment will increase in the coming years.
"This area is growing - we're going to need the school," said Mr. Ray, the father of two children who attend Greendale Elementary and will eventually attend New Ellenton Middle.
"There's a lot of industry and residential subdivisions being built. It just makes no sense at all (to close the school)."
Mr. Ray is one of many parents who have expressed concern in recent weeks since the release of an Aiken County school board committee's report that has raised the idea of converting New Ellenton Middle into a facility for serving severely mentally and physically disabled pupils while sending its current pupils to the Jackson Middle School campus.
New Ellenton is just one of a number of schools in the report - which school officials have stressed is only for discussion - that are mentioned for possible closure to attain a cost savings.
The district spends millions on special education each year. Last year the district spent $19 million on special education and this year it is spending $20 million, according to Brock Heron, the comptroller.
Christine Sanders, the chairwoman of the committee that issued the report, said that at their next meeting Tuesday night, each board member will submit a prioritized list of items to focus on, which might or might not include the conversion of New Ellenton Middle.
"It was just a suggestion of one thing to consider," Dr. Sanders said. "Nobody actually got into specifics about how exactly it would come about - that was just a talking point."
Pat Silva, the director of special education, said there are fewer than 30 severely mentally and physically disabled students and about 3,400 regular special education pupils who are mainstreamed at schools across the county.
"I think most of our students are benefitting greatly from being in the regular education environment," Ms. Silva said. "(Are) there are some advantages to having your most severe and profound in one place? Yes. (But) I think having our children in regular school settings far outweighs the benefits."
Peggy Trivelas, the principal of Chukker Creek Elementary and a former director of special education in the county, said a special education student's individual education plan focuses on what works best for that student.
"For some children, very minimal support from special ed is necessary," Ms. Trivelas said. "For others, a much more restrictive environment is necessary for them to get what they need. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution,"
Linda Thigpen, an assistant principal at the Washington Center, a Greenville County public school serving moderately and severely mentally and physically disabled students ages 5-21, said in her past experience as a special education teacher in a regular school she felt separate from the regular school population.
"I felt kind of like the little red-headed stepchild," Ms. Thigpen said. "I was out there on my own and quite unique from the rest of the school. We were pretty much excluded in a regular ed setting - in fact, we had to eat lunch over to the side. We weren't included in assemblies because I did have some behaviors to deal with, but most of the time it was not a major issue."
Joseph Gleaton, a parent of three children who attended New Ellenton Middle and is a city council member and mayor pro tem of New Ellenton, said he thinks additional pupils are needed at New Ellenton Middle.
"We don't have enough students in this school," Mr. Gleaton said. "I think the school board should look at redistricting and maybe some redrawing of lines to keep this school open."
He added, "This is a great school. I have the upmost respect for the teachers and the people in the community concerning this school."
Reach Nathan Dickinson at (803) 648-1395, ext. 109, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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