There's the John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School some parents say they were promised: A place tailor-made for children with emotional problems and special needs to work alongside general education students, succeed and go on to college.
But then there's the Lavelle those parents say they got: A school where their children's needs aren't being met, where communication is dismal and the charter isn't even available for parents to see, let alone is being upheld.
"Our kids deserve the school we were promised," parent Laura Timoney said.
Ms. Timoney was among six parents who brought their concerns to a school board meeting last Thursday, and among about 15 who worked on a lengthy letter to the board sent in June. But school president Ken Byalin said the school is meeting a "significant need" on Staten Island.
'FAR GREATER SUCCESS'
"Despite the fact that there are a small number of really unhappy parents, we've had far greater success than we expected to have," he said.
But Timoney, formerly head of the school's Family School Association, said some parents felt like Lavelle offered a "bait and switch," with special education and emotionally struggling students be "sought after and advertised to," promised services not available elsewhere.
"Children are suffering and struggling," Ms. Timoney said at the meeting. "I'm not saying every student, but it's a decent amount."
Three parents at the board meeting said they weren't sure they would send their child back to the school this year. Ms. Timoney said her daughter Maggie, who has Asperger's syndrome and attention deficit disorder, had been falling asleep during class, and her standardized test grades have been dropping.
"It really (stinks), because we've been screaming for help since day one," she said through tears at the meeting.
Lack of resources -- like a guidance counselor and a full-time school psychologist -- and a longer school day will make it impossible for Maggie to excel, Ms. Timoney said.
Maryalice Fegely also is thinking of sending her son to a different school. He acts out in class, she said, but her attempts to have his therapist work with the part-time school psychologist to quell his outbursts went nowhere.
"I wish it could be fixed," she said after the meeting. "I don't know that I'll have the support for him there."
Rachel Akfa is also thinking about pulling her son out of Lavelle. Her son was told he might not be promoted -- only to perform strongly on standardized tests.
"There is so much drama here," she said. "I've never heard of any other junior high school parent going through the drama that we're going through here."
In an interview, Byalin acknowledged more students have been leaving the school than they expected. According to the 2009-2010 annual report, the school had a 23 percent rate of attrition -- well below their goal of retaining 93.8 percent of students.
"I think the primary reason the attrition has been higher than we anticipated is that we expected -- naively, I would say now -- for parents to make fairly realistic assessments about whether their kid could go into a college prep program or not," he said.
Many of the students at Lavelle who have emotional challenges also have intellectual ones, he said, and can't keep up. Others far behind their peers may take years to catch up, and won't be promoted until they reach grade level, he said.
"It's very hard, without giving a kid a chance, to know how much of the functional problem is an intellectual deficit and how much of it is an emotional problem," he said.
Lavelle was the first charter school to open on the Island, and once some parents became unhappy, they got a crash course in how they work.
"We don't have any resources. We don't have any support systems," Ms. Timoney said.
Parents realized the charter was the school's main measure of accountability, and tried to obtain it. After repeated requests and Freedom of Information Law filings, Ms. Timoney said a document titled Charter was posted on the school website. But it's actually just the charter application, not the whole document.
The Advance requested a copy of the charter from the state Board of Regents August 11, but has yet to receive it. A spokeswoman said the delay was due to redacting personal information.
Byalin said they were working to post it online as it is redacted. But he said the school was hoping proposed amendments and revisions to the charter were approved before providing copies to parents.
The charter application, and the current charter, contains a plan for a Mental Health Center with a director that was supposed to be serving students with emotional challenges -- something that does not exist at the school. It is slated to be removed from the charter and has risen the eyebrows of parents.
The mental health clinic was part of an earlier model of the school, Byalin said, with a stratified lottery that would have had 75 percent of the students diagnosed with psychological problems. But the state shot down that proposal, Byalin said, and the school moved to a completely open lottery system that "welcomed" those with emotional challenges, and conducted outreach to the group. The new model meant the clinic was no longer "economically viable" or necessary, he said.
Christine Heddi said she was under the impression all of her son's teachers would be dually certified in general and special education -- as advertised on promotional material -- but said it wasn't the case this year.
Byalin said not everyone was dually certified, but students are with a special education certified teacher for 4½ hours a day -- sometimes in a co-teaching model where they sit-in with another teacher. He said the school actively seeks and rewards teachers for being dually certified, but as the subject area becomes more advanced, they're harder to find.
In interviews, several parents also said they were told they had to change their child's Individualized Education Programs (IEP), which outline special education plans, to get entrance to the school.
ALWAYS IN COMPLIANCE
Byalin said the school didn't force anyone to change an IEP. They are developed by the Committee on Special Education and parents of the student in question, he said. He said no single school is obligated to meet the needs of every child, and said they have always complied with their students' IEPs.
"There are kids who need much more restrictive programs than Lavelle provides," he said.
But Andrea Lella, a special education advocate, said she has been approached by parents of 10 children looking to leave the school -- and looking to restore their old IEPs. She was angry the school was advertised to special needs families, and that the IEP changes were approved.
"Every IEP was changed," Ms. Lella said. "And then none of the services were given."
NOT THE FIRST TIME
Carol and Scott Michie have two children at the school -- and said this isn't the first time they've tried to have their problems with Lavelle addressed. Scott Michie said poor communication and other issues were raised at a June board meeting.
"I walked out of there and I said to myself, 'We didn't accomplish a damn thing,'" he said.
Teachers and paraprofessionals at the meeting said the school was extremely introspective, and teachers -- whom parents mostly praised -- were working to find ways to make the school work best for children. Board members said they would strive to improve communication and services for students.
"This kind of feedback is extremely important," board member Sheldon Blackwell said. "It's the only way we can really understand what's going on."
Board member William Henri said the board was working on a comprehensive response to parent concerns.
"Everyone's interest is to make Lavelle the best school possible, and to make the school a success for each and every child," Henri said.