The Madison Metro School District currently rents a space on Olin Avenue which serves as the base for four of the district’s intensive intervention programs.
About 500 elementary and middle school students with disabilities in the district are referred to the intensive support team each year.
Of those 500, the team selected 36 students who also require a high degree of individualized instruction and support to participate in the programs this year.
Last night, in an effort to reduce its leasing costs and provide these students with their own space, the Madison school board approved making a $4.5 million purchase of the building at 333 Holtzman Road to house the intervention programs.
Martha Olsen is the Assistant Director of Special Education for the Madison school district. She says that even though the District has been committed to supporting students with disabilities in the past, it can still do better.
“Our students share public restrooms, hallways, and common spaces with anybody that walks into that building,” Olsen says. “While our landlord is very supportive of us and our programs, we’re also reminded that we need to be a little more quiet, watch out for the cars driving in and out, and leave the landscape rocks alone, because it’s not our space.”
Olsen also says her students deserve a safe environment, but opponents of the proposal argue that separating students with disabilities from their peers amounts to segregation.
Andrea Ruppar, a professor of special education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that removing students with disabilities from their peers defeats the whole purpose of special education.
“Special education cannot exist in the absence of general education because our goal as special educators is to support students’ access to the general curriculum,” Ruppar says. “If we don’t have a general curriculum, then there’s nothing for us to help students access. Then special educators are put in a position of making a whole curriculum for one, or two, or three, or five students.”
Ruppar also says that segregating students with disabilities leads to poorer educational outcomes, and makes it more likely that they will be segregated as adults.
In a four to three vote, the school board voted to approve the purchase of the building last night.
School board member Ali Muldrow was one who voted to buy the site.
She asserted during last night’s meeting that the District has a duty to meet students where they’re at, and that providing a place for students with disabilities to learn isn’t clearly segregation.
“We send educators into the jail, we send educators into hospitals, we send educators that allow for them to meet students where they’re at for whatever reasons that they are where they’re at, and I think to characterize this programming as segregation is a really complicated thing to do within special education,” Muldrow says.
Both supporters and critics of the proposal agree on one thing: the Olin Avenue location is not ideal.
“The Olin Avenue facility sucks, to be blunt about it. I’ve been in there, I have clients in there, [and] I’m not going to sing any praises about that facility,” says civil rights attorney Jeff Spitzer-Resnick.
He also says he’s frustrated the District considered purchasing the Holtzman Road site without community input.
“This action last night was taken without really significant, if any, input, other than the three minutes that people were allowed to give in public comments,” Spitzer-Resnick says. “There’s [also] a Special Ed Parent Advisory Committee that was not really consulted on this huge purchase, and so [both] the administration and the board need to do a lot better job engaging with the thousands of families that have children in special education.”
The district will close on the property in February or March of next year, and will be able to move the intensive support programs to the new property in 2021 after renovations are made
An amendment to the purchase was also approved last night.
That amendment would require a report about the rates of students who return to neighborhood schools before programming for high school students could be expanded to the new location.