District may reverse plan for Pattison’s

Aaliyah, 10, laughs as she works to sort objects found in a container of with the help of Carlye Byrd, teaching assistant, during class in April at Pattison’s Academy for Comprehensive Education. The academy opened in 2010 and is the only charter school in the state that serves children with complex and multiple disabilities.

The Charleston County School District may close the Lowcountry’s only public school designed to exclusively serve children with multiple and severe disabilities, leaving parents scrambling less than four weeks before the start of the school year.

District officials met with the board of Pattison’s Academy for Comprehensive Education and, citing cost concerns, proposed a plan to shutter the former charter school and send its students back to their home schools. Officials said this proposal would save the district more than $800,000.

Pattison’s board member Randy Disharoon, whose son attended the school, said he feels betrayed.

“We voluntarily gave up our charter with the understanding that the kids were all going to stay together and all the teachers were going to be given contracts, and neither of those two understandings were met or honored,” Disharoon said. “We trusted CCSD staff ... They burned us.”

Pattison’s Academy for Comprehensive Education opened in August 2010 in the back of a Baptist church on Bees Ferry Road. The school’s unique curriculum integrated intensive therapy and instruction. On top of their regular responsibilities, Pattison’s teachers and staff routinely change diapers, administer medication and feed students, sometimes multiple times a day and through gastrostomy tubes, while a team of physical, speech and occupational therapists rotate through classrooms.

“When you’re there, it’s kind of like heaven on earth,” said parent Melody Walker. Her 13-year-old son, Noah, a Pattison’s student, has severe multiple disabilities, including cerebral palsy, epilepsy and developmental delays. He requires around-the-clock care.

“With my son, he belongs there. That school was created for him.”

But the program is an expensive one, and Pattison’s D.R.E.A.M. Academy, the nonprofit overseeing the charter school, has consistently struggled to raise enough money to keep the school open.

In April, Pattison’s leadership voluntarily relinquished the school’s charter, which the Charleston County School Board unanimously accepted. The agreement allowed the school district to take over operations at Pattison’s and absorb its costs — despite recommendations by district staff to close small, expensive schools, such as Pattison’s, to avoid another disastrous $18 million budget shortfall.

“Although the charter itself will be dissolved, we really view this as a collaborative effort and great opportunity to continue the wonderful work you are doing but now with the addition of CCSD resources,” district attorney John Emerson wrote in an April 12 email to Richard Gross, the Pattison’s board president. “It is our plan, to the extent feasible, to keep all of the students together in one setting and continue the intensive therapy services.”

Disharoon said his “worst fears were realized” on Thursday when, according to Disharoon, district leaders reneged on their commitment to keep the school intact.

The cost to maintain the independent school would exceed $1.7 million, according to a district assessment presented to Pattison’s board. The district would save roughly $838,000, including $300,000 in transportation costs and about $90,000 in rent, by sending Pattison’s students to their home schools.

“We’re talking about an over $800,000 difference for 30 kids,” school district Chief Financial Officer Glenn Stiegman told The Post and Courier. “The feelings on part of the administration is they would get all services they would get, all (individualized education plans) would be met fully, they’ll get the same exact services as the other special ed students in the district and it was not reasonable to spend an extra $800,000.”

School district officials have not made a final decision concerning the future of Pattison’s, district spokeswoman Erica Taylor said.

Meanwhile, parents such as Walker are distraught at the prospect of having to send their children to traditional schools.

“It feels like death in the family,” she said. “I find myself butting my head against the wall like, what other options do I have for him? And there’s nothing. ... It seems cruel. Just cruel.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764.