District 175 leader wants private company’s help in special education

Superintendent Pam Leonard doesn’t want Harmony Emge School District 175 students “crossing the river” to go to school. She thinks, after consulting with special education experts, the best way to serve those students and get them back into their home district is to use a private company’s services at Ellis Elementary School in Belleville.

At last month’s special school board meeting, several parents spoke out against the motion to allow Sequel Youth and Family Services to lease space at the school. The motion was tabled and will be revisited at 7 p.m. Monday at the regular board meeting at Emge Junior High, 7401 Westchester Drive in Belleville.

A representative of Sequel could not be reached for comment.

Leonard said it wasn’t simply expense that drove the conversations with consultants about alternatives to sending special education students away from the district. The options are “limited” in special education, she said.

“It’s advocating for parents and kids who need the services. And we have them, and by ignoring them or saying it isn’t so, you aren’t doing justice to the problem and you aren’t educating all the children in your district.”

More than 90 people have joined a Facebook page called “Say No To Sequel At Dist 175.” Some say they are circulating a petition against Sequel, and many are troubled that there is no written proposal, agreement or contract to review.

“Before you turn in your application (to the Illinois State Board of Education), you have to have an address,” Leonard said of Sequel.

She says there hasn’t been any contract or formal proposal yet because Sequel hasn’t started the application process with ISBE. It is Sequel’s responsibility to make the educational plan for the students and hire the necessary professionals. Leonard said student teachers would not be allowed in the program.

“It’s a matter of expense,” Leonard said. “They are highly trained teachers.”

The superintendent of the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education said she had not spoken to Leonard about the possibilities, but that any such private enterprise would not fall under the purview of the ROE.

“It sounds like what the district wants to do is provide the same services to the students but give the authority to the private agency to bring them into the mix for expertise,” said Susan Sarfaty, superintendent of the St. Clair ROE.

Sequel would pay the district for space at Ellis, two classrooms plus additional administrative space, according to Leonard. Sequel would be paid by the district for the education of the special needs students, but that money is an ISBE-set rate and reimbursed in full by the state. District 175 would not pay for the services, Leonard said.

At the onset, if approved, she said Sequel would likely take lunches in their two classrooms and perhaps gradually transition to eating in the cafeteria and using the gym as needed. Sequel would then pay extra for those spaces, Leonard said.

These special education students would arrive to school via separate transportation to the doors closest to the classrooms — a separate entrance than what Ellis students use. Leonard said the students at Sequel would be supervised by an adult at all times, even to use the restroom at Ellis.

If the space is agreed upon Monday, then Sequel will begin a process with the ISBE to educate 16 special-needs students at Ellis.

Leonard said, “our kids in our district are the top priority.”

The students who might use Sequel’s services face “significant learning challenges,” she said, and a large classroom of up to 28 students is difficult for them.

Leonard could not talk about specific students. However, she said students who could potentially be educated by Sequel are from the Belleville area, and no programs in the metro-east currently exist for them. They attend Pathways in St. Louis.

The idea is that with a smaller classroom, of no more than eight students for one teacher, one paraprofessional and one social worker, those students would learn “how to function and learn social emotional (skills),” Leonard said, while receiving their education.

Leonard could offer few specifics about Sequel but did say the company “would work very specifically on social skills.

“The whole point is the child is returned to the regular classroom, no matter who they are,” she said. “That is the law” to work toward returning all students to general education classrooms.

Contact reporter Mary Cooley at or 618-239-2535. Follow her on Twitter: @MaryCooleyBND.

What would Sequel do at Ellis Elementary?

First, Sequel needs an address in order to apply to the Illinois State Board of Education. At that time, Sequel and Harmony Emge District 175 could negotiate a contract for services.

Superintendent Pam Leonard says the lease is for two classrooms, formerly occupied by fourth grades that are now at Harmony Intermediate Center. She said the move to Harmony was unrelated to the later possibility of Sequel.

Sequel would likely have no more than eight students per classroom. Each classroom would have one certified teacher, one paraprofessional, and one social worker.

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