Four days before school started this fall, the Lake Travis school district announced that students in itsG3 special education program at Rough Hollow Elementary School would be moving to Lakeway Elementary because of overcrowding, raising questions and frustrations for some parents.
G3, which stands for “Get Ready, Get Set, Go,” started in 2017 to provide a structured environment for students with communication and behavioral needs, including students on the autism spectrum, according to Stefani Allen, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
The move from Rough Hollow to Lakeway Elementary came just one year after the program was split between three campuses. This means some of the G3 students are attending their third campus in as many years. When the G3 program started it was at West Cypress Hills Elementary before being split last year between that campus, Rough Hollow and Lake Travis Elementary.
‘That’s hard on kids’
Allen said the district decided to move Rough Hollow’s G3 students to Lakeway in response to overcrowding at Rough Hollow, a result of the district’s rapid growth. Nine students made the change to Lakeway’s campus, with additional students enrolling in the program there for the first time this year.
“We don’t want classrooms to be crowded or doubled up. That’s not effective for any student,” she said. “We did everything in our power to make that transition as smooth as possible. We had district staff there, we still have district staff working in the classroom to help the students and the teachers as they’re still transitioning.”
Parents of children who were moved to Lakeway Elementary this year said they were frustrated that the move was announced four days before school started, and some questioned why the district was not able to anticipate the crowding issue at Rough Hollow early enough to find another solution.
Lindsay Peck, whose son is in third grade in the G3 program, said that just because it is legal for the district to move programs to new campuses does not mean that it is the right thing to do for students. If the district had given students and parents more warning and a chance to tour the new campus and get more information, she might have felt differently about the move, she said.
“They keep telling us that it’s because of numbers, it’s because of numbers, and what we hear is it’s just because your kids take up too much room,” Peck said. “They are still children who make friends, they are still children who enjoy community, and to have them ripped out a few days before school starts is not OK.”
Amaya Mendenhall, whose son Parker is a fourth grader in the G3 program, said he has been in district special education programs for six years and in that time he has been assigned to five different campuses, including three in the past three years with G3.
She said that it can be hard for children with autism to adjust to new environments and people every year, especially with so little notice for the change in plans. Mendenhall said her son only spends part of his day in the G3 program, so moving the program means he has to adjust to new teachers and peers during the rest of his learning time.
“They don’t take into consideration when they do these types of things how it negatively impacts my son and actually stops his progression,” she said. “I’m just curious how the school board and the superintendent and all these would feel if their child, who isn’t on the spectrum, had to go find a new peer group every year, had to go to new campuses every year. That’s hard on kids who aren’t on the spectrum, that’s difficult. I think any parent would say whether they’re autistic or not, that is not something that they would be OK with.”
Mendenhall said she did not send her son to school at first this year because she didn’t feel like she had enough information about the new campus to feel comfortable doing so. She said this week he has started to ease into the new space as part of a trial period.
Allen said the program was moved four days before school started because the district did not have a clear picture of Rough Hollow’s enrollment until late in the summer as students continued to enroll. She said this was exacerbated by enrollment uncertainties caused by the pandemic.
“We didn’t know how many kids would be returning to school and who was going to register and so there were a number of factors that caused it,” she said. “We knew the timing wasn’t ideal, because it was right before school got started, but we were having a space issue. And Lakeway Elementary had the space to accommodate the G3 program.”
Allen said the district considered multiple options to reduce overcrowding, including rezoning a larger portion of the student body or bringing in portables, but it wasn’t possible to arrange another fix on such short notice.
“This was really a tough decision, it wasn’t one that we took lightly,” she said. “But I think it was in the best interest of all the students.”
Parents share staffing concerns
The move is the latest concern about the program, and even parents of students unaffected by the recent change say they are also worried about the staffing and implementation of the program.
“The initial years of the program, it had a great start,” said Andres Londoño, whose two sons are in the G3 program at Lake Travis Elementary. “And slowly, we have seen a lot of deterioration in the program, the communication and the transparency from the administration, and it leads to a lot of confusion.”
Londoño’s oldest son,Fenix, was in the program when it was first launched for about five children at West Cypress Hills Elementary. He and his wife, Lindsay, were pleased that staff were trained by the Central Texas Autism Center and worked with parents to hone in on applied behavioral analysis.
As the program has grown, however, they have seen previous staff members leave the district and say there is less collaboration with parents.
And after first making progress, their children have had behavioral troubles again. They said they worry it’s because new staff and substitutes in the program don’t have as much experience with special education or training. That has interfered with their kids’ ability to spend more time learning in their G3 and general classes.
“It’s a highly structured and highly specialized program with people who have never worked in schools or never worked in programs like this, who are not receiving the training,” Lindsay Londoño said. “And that’s leading to behaviors in school, leading to them missing minutes in their inclusion classroom.”
The Londoños have expressed their concerns to the district, but want to see the program improve with a clear mission and with a parent liaison who can work with staff to address the community’s concerns.
“We would like a baseline communication on what the G3 program is, including what the expectations for the staff that is required to work in G3, so that it is clear and is executed across all campuses that G3 is at,” Andres Londoño said. “Because at this point, we have a wide spectrum of training and skill sets across various campuses, and that makes it very difficult to really establish a program, especially when you’re moving kids from campus to campus.”
Allen acknowledged the G3 program has seen staff turnover, even before the pandemic, as well as recent shortages. However, she said it is part of a trend affecting many districts, both in and out of special education.
“We have not been able to find as many teachers as we would like to have on staff,” she said. “And so that’s really where the special ed department is stepping in and filling in and making sure that our children are well cared for.”
She said all teachers in the G3 program are certified teachers and the district offers G3 staff ongoing training in crisis intervention and applied behavior analysis, and continues to work with the Central Texas Autism Center.
“Those trainings are ongoing, and really based on the needs of the students if we find a specific behavior or specific academic goal that one of our students needs, then we will offer some more support for those teachers.”
Allen also said the district was working to craft a job description to hire a parent liaison “especially for special education families” as soon as possible.
“We’re just really focused in on the classroom and doing right by the children in the classroom, making sure that they’re learning and that program continues to grow and strengthen,” she said. “But we encourage parents to reach out to us, let us know if they’re concerned so that we can specifically address that.”