Parents: Montessori school still failing special-needs students |

Parents: Montessori school still failing special-needs students

Joel Stonington
Darcy Phillips and her son Chayton, 5, play with trains after school Thursday at their Carbondale home. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)

Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE ” Ross Montessori School again is under fire from parents who say the school is not meeting legal requirements to serve children with special needs.

The Carbondale public charter school caught heat over the same issue last year, its first.

Mark Grice, who heads the school, said Ross is trying to meet requirements. However, he said the school is not right for all students and that services for special-needs children are expensive and difficult to get in a rural area.

Last May, two parents hired lawyers to press Ross into pro°©viding services that state and federal laws require for special°©needs students. This year, the parents of Chayton Phillips, a 5°© year- old with high- functioning autism, said they feel pushed out of the school.

“He’s a pretty amazing bright little dude, but he has the problems associated with autism,” said Darcy Phillips, Chayton’s mom. “We thought the Montessori would be a good fit for him. We researched it heavily.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ensures all students a “free and appropriate public education” designed to individualized needs. So students with disabilities have an “individual education plan” that mandates certain actions.

The plan has to be redone every year during an annual review. However, Phillips said, when it came time to review Chayton’s plan, the school allegedly tried to eliminate it.

“We went in, they had one test they had done and the teacher’s report, and wanted to deny him eligibility based on those things,” Phillips said.

Though Phillips had hoped to keep Chayton in school until the end of the year, she said a conversation with Grice changed all that.

“I said I wished he hadn’t been accepted because then we wouldn’t have had to have this battle,” Phillips said. “Mark said, ‘You can pull him anytime. I have people on a wait list.’ We realized after that that we did need to pull him.”

So Chayton entered Basalt Elementary three weeks before the holiday break. Basalt used the individual education plan the Phillipses had brought from Arizona, the same plan that had been in effect at Ross before the review, and he has been receiving full services ever since, Phillips said.

Grice said privacy rules bar him from commenting directly on Chayton’s case. But he did say Ross Montessori is serving a number of students with special needs successfully.

Even so, Grice said it’s not easy for Ross to find specialists many individual education plans require. Public schools in the valley share professionals such as occupational therapists and speech language pathologists who may not be needed at any one school for 40 hours a week. Ross Montessori may not borrow staff from a public school in the valley, even though both are publicly funded, because Ross is in a charter district.

Last year, Julie Hawkin hired a lawyer, in part to get Ross to hire an occupational therapist for her son, as his individual education plan mandated.

“They have done much better this year,” Hawkin said. “They have improved things with my son. But there’s still room for more improvement; they’re not there yet. I still question their priorities about special education.”

Grice said one of the biggest issues is letting parents know what kind of services are available before the student is enrolled.

“I have to do a better job of educating parents when they come in the door,” Grice said. “Tell them the challenges we have of providing services of [individual education plans]. It’s because of where we’re located. We live in a very expensive area. We’re not Denver.”

Phillips said she considered hiring a lawyer to get the school to comply, but “forcing [ Ross] to provide services they didn’t believe were needed just didn’t seem like a good fit for our child.”

Grice said the school sometimes disagrees with parents about the best way to educate but that his main priority remains what is best for each child.

“If a parent walks in with a child with an IEP, I need to do a good job of making sure they understand what kind of school we are,” Grice said. “It’s suited for some types of students and not for other types of students.”

Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is