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Special-needs school program faces cuts
Budget woes threaten GNETS ability to teach students with emotional, behavioral problems
Charlene Jones, a middle school science and math teacher, teaches Wednesday at Woods Mill Academy. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Violent outbursts, an inability to self-regulate or feelings of disorientation in a school of hundreds of kids can lead a special-needs student to a Georgia Network for Education and Therapeutic Support school.

When a student with severe emotional and behavioral disorders becomes unmanageable in the classroom, they often are sent to programs where they can be socialized and reintroduced to the typical classroom.

GNETS programs support local school systems by providing special education and therapeutic support for students whose behavior impedes learning. The Gainesville-based arm of the network, the Alpine GNETS Program, has five locations that served 165 special-needs children in 13 counties last school year.

Local educators who serve bipolar or autistic students, among others, are pleading with legislators to spare the program from further budget cuts or at worst, elimination. The legislature convenes in January and, due to declining state revenues, will have to decide which state agencies will absorb further cuts and which will get the ax completely.

Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, attended an Alpine GNETS board meeting Wednesday to learn more about the program. He didn’t mince words with superintendents and GNETS administrators.

"We will have to do away with some programs," he said.

It remains to be seen if GNETS will be one of those.

Rogers said, however, that he will do his best to educate other elected officials on the program he feels serves this group of students, school systems and Georgia taxpayers well.

"We’ve got to protect this type of program to keep the normal classroom stable," Rogers said. "If we don’t catch (these students) now, the back end will be much more costly, whether it’s a prison or a residential treatment center."

All special-needs students have individualized education plans that are legally enforceable. Some call for treatment in a facility that only GNETS or costly residential programs can provide. Some students come to GNETS after they have been in trouble with the law in an incident that may have been related to their condition.

Director Sandy Addis of Pioneer RESA, the fiscal agency that oversees Alpine GNETS, says many of the program’s students have potential.

"Some of them are very bright. Some of them are well-behaved," he said. "Some of them are emotionally on a roller coaster, but that’s a result of their disorder."

Addis said the program is able to operate on a $2.4 million budget this fiscal year thanks to $227,000 in contributions from local school systems. Alpine GNETS employs about 39 people this year compared to 48 two years ago, he said.

The $2.4 million budget is slightly less than the program’s fiscal year 2004 budget. Enrollment fluctuates almost daily, but it has fewer students now compared to last school year, Addis said.

Local systems began contributing funds to Pioneer RESA two years ago when the state began slashing education budgets. Addis said that state money funded 80 percent of the Alpine program this fiscal year. Federal funds contributed 8 percent and local funds an additional 12 percent.

"That was hard on them to give me that money, but they did it for the kids," Addis said of local systems already struggling to balance their own budgets.

Susan Macken, special education director for Gainesville schools, said Alpine GNETS is indispensable. The program helps special-needs students with severe emotional behavioral disorders, not physical handicaps, to become more successful socially and academically.

"It’s incredibly important because when you’re looking at a student who has behaviors that are interfering with their learning, then the more we can work with that student to develop more appropriate social behavior, the more likely they will be to be successful in academics," she said.

Students’ extreme emotional responses to situations can impede their academic progress, she said. But GNETS programs mimic a typical classroom, where network teachers and interventionists help students ages 3 to 21 to learn how to act appropriately.

Addis said Alpine student test scores over the past five years show the program is helping students to perform on the same academic levels as special-needs students in typical schools.

Pam Kirkpatrick, Alpine Program services coordinator, said she is seeing students come to GNETS with more severe problems.

"The characteristics of the behavior of students have become worse over time," she said. "... We have 5-year-olds who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. We are getting kids who we can’t even label. They have very bizarre disorders."

Kirkpatrick speculates that the severity of illnesses is linked to mothers’ drug use during pregnancy. She said many GNETS students come from economically disadvantaged homes.

"There will always be children who just can’t handle the general education classroom, a resource room or different segments," she said. "I cannot imagine a program that will more efficiently serve these students."

One child with an emotional disorder can disrupt other children in a regular special-education classroom if that child is not removed, she said.

State Board of Education member Larry Winter supports the GNETS program and said the state "cannot afford to whack this one." Even in tough economic times, Winter, an accountant, said he believes this program has earned the right to be treated gently.

"The wonderful thing about GNETS is that we are able to return (students) back to their normal classrooms and with the skills they need to live normal lives," he said. "As a state, that’s the best outcome we could have, because then they become taxpayers and not reliant on the system. We cannot fail here."