Local school for disabled faces uncertainty Parents worry what will happen after district takes over

Aaliyah, 10, laughs as she sorts objects in a container with the help of Carlye Byrd, a teaching assistant, at Pattison’s Academy for Comprehensive Education.

Julie Simpkins’ 11-year-old daughter can read four words: Book, ball, music and her name, Emily.

This may not seem like much, but for Emily, sight reading is a major milestone in her educational journey. She was born with a rare chromosomal deletion syndrome. She uses a wheelchair. She wears a diaper. She needs help feeding herself.

In short, Emily needs a lot of care. So for parents like Simpkins, Emily’s school is a godsend.

Pattison’s Academy for Comprehensive Education opened in August 2010 in the back of a Baptist church on Bees Ferry Road as the state’s only public charter school designed to exclusively serve children with multiple and severe disabilities. Pattison’s enrolls just 34 students in grades K through 11, from ages 5 to 21 years old. Each class is run by one teacher and two teaching assistants. A team of physical, speech and occupational therapists rotates throughout the rooms. The school’s unique curriculum integrates both therapy and instruction.

The difference between Pattison’s and a traditional public school is “night and day,” said parent Melissa Kelly. “Everything about our kids’ lives is custom-made — where they sleep, where they sit, where they shower. Why shouldn’t their school experience be that way?”

But Pattison’s has always walked a financial tightrope. And now the school’s future hangs in the balance after the Charleston County School Board unanimously voted to terminate its charter at the end of this school year. The agreement, made with support from Pattison’s leadership, will allow the school district to take over operations at Pattison’s and absorb its costs — despite recent recommendations by district staff to close small, expensive schools to avoid another disastrous $18 million budget shortfall.

“There have been no decisions made as it relates to the future programmatic structure of PACE Charter School,” said district spokesman Daniel Head. “Our overriding goal is to serve the most critical-needs students in the best way possible. That is our focus and will be what guides future decisions.”

But parents like Simpkins and Kelly worry: How the school district will continue providing their children with the same level of intensive services as they received at Pattison’s in a lean budget year?

“It is not an inexpensive model,” said Pattison’s board member and parent Randy Disharoon. His 19-year-old son Seth has a condition called lissencephaly, which translates in Latin to “smooth brain.” At Pattison’s, Seth has learned to walk with assistance from a gait trainer and to feed himself for the first time in his life.

“It’s hard to do what we do, but we see breakthroughs,” Disharoon said, “which lead to these children becoming more independent, which then actually helps society as a whole.”

Not surprisingly, Pattison’s is one of the most expensive schools in the district, according to a school district analysis, spending roughly $23,312 per pupil. Pattison’s D.R.E.A.M. Academy, the nonprofit overseeing the summer camp program and charter school, has to raise more than $260,000 every year through various charity events to pay rent, provide busing and make up for low Medicaid reimbursement rates.

“It’s an arduous task every year and we’re just a grass-roots kind of organization,” said Pattison’s Executive Director Johnny Short. “I think we’re at our maximum as far as generating revenue the way that we do.”

Inside Pattison’s, wheelchairs line the hallways and colorful artwork covers the walls. Classrooms are stocked with diapers, wipes and cases of PediaSure, plus back braces, hand splints, wrist splints and “AFOs” — lower-leg braces used to stabilize the foot and ankle. Students communicate with DynaVox devices, touch-activated switches and eye-tracking technology. One students blinks — one for “yes” and two for “no.”

On top of teaching reading, math, science and social studies, Pattison’s teachers change diapers, administer medication and feed students, sometimes multiple times a day and through gastrostomy tubes.

“You name it, I do it,” teacher Casey Busch said on a Thursday morning before launching into a clap- and sing-along with her class.

For teachers, the biggest challenge is balancing the students’ academic needs with their medical ones, said Principal Shannon O’Neill, a former special-education teacher who joined Pattison’s in August from a similar school in Delaware.

“They’re here to teach, but then they have all of this other stuff that a typical classroom teacher may not have to this extent. All seven of them have pretty significant disabilities,” O’Neill said, gesturing to a group of students in a classroom. “Some days are easier than others.”

That’s especially true for Melissa Kelly’s 13-year-old daughter Madi, who has cerebral palsy and suffers from seizures. Kelly moved to Charleston County so Madi, a longtime summer camper at Pattison’s, could attend the charter school. For Madi, staying awake at school or taking a few steps without assistance are signs that Pattison’s is making a difference. Without Pattison’s, Kelly said she fears Madi would lose the modest skills she’s gained.

Simpkins agrees. If the school district can’t replicate Pattison’s model next fall, Kelly and Simpkins both said they would pull their children out of school and teach them at home.

“It has been very devastating to know this is happening, but we have to keep going,” Simpkins said. “We don’t have a Plan B. At all.

Reach Deanna Pan at 843-937-5764