Parents of future students at a long-planned North Bethesda middle school aren’t happy with the school system’s recent move to collocate a special needs school on the same site.
On Monday, MCPS Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers recommended that Rock Terrace — a Rockville school for students age 12-21 with special needs — collocate with the new Tilden Middle School when it moves from its current spot on Old Georgetown Road to 6300 Tilden Lane.
“Even though these schools will share space, they will maintain their separate identities and missions, and will have staff dedicated to ensuring student success,” Bowers announced.
Parents of future Tilden Middle School students say MCPS is rushing to find a collocation partner for Rock Terrace because of its aging Rockville building and a state mandate that discourages funding for standalone special education centers.
“It seems like this is very much a fast-tracked,” said Andrew Weiss, who lives next to the Tilden site and has two kids in a nearby elementary school. “They had a need to accommodate Rock Terrace. I guess it’s in bad shape and they needed to put it somewhere and Tilden was the next build on the list. They did it not because it made sense, but because it was convenient.”
Rebecca Rudich, who has children in nearby elementary and preschools, said she wants to see a thorough analysis of why collocating Rock Terrace with the new Tilden is the right choice.
“I’m worried that we’re telling one story to get the building built,” Rudich said, “but it won’t be the truth.”
Since 1991, the old Tilden Middle School building has been used as a holding site for other schools put out by renovation projects. MCPS plans to build a new facility that would open in August 2019 if enough capital funding is provided.
But last October, then-Superintendent Joshua Starr recommended a roundtable discussion group to look into the idea of collocating Rock Terrace with the new Tilden.
Rock Terrace is currently in a 65-year-old building and the school system says it’s in need of significant improvements. It also says collocating the special needs school in a general education environment “aligns with the Board of Education’s goals of having disabled and nondisabled students interact to the maximum extent appropriate.”
In the announcement of Bowers’ recommendation on Monday, the school system also said, “the state of maryland has indicated that MCPS may not be eligible to receive state capital funds to revitalize/expand stand-alone special education centers because they do not support the goal of special education students receiving instruction in a general education setting when appropriate.”
The roundtable group met earlier this year with parents from both schools, teachers, administrators, MCPS planners and architects.
MCPS senior planner Deborah Szyfer, who ran the meetings, said the roundtable was in place to discuss big picture issues if the schools were to be collocated. One meeting in January included almost a dozen concept plans from architects on where to put the new school’s gyms, cafeterias, parking lots and bus drop-off areas, and if Tilden and Rock Terrace should have separate entrances and classroom wings.
MCPS has collocated special education programs with a elementary school in Germantown and plans to with an expanded Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville once it opens in 2019.
The Board of Education will review Bowers’ recommendation on April 14 and hold a public hearing on April 27. The Board is expected to make a final decision on May 12, but a growing group of future Tilden parents say they feel MCPS has already made up its mind.
“It seems to me they’re putting the cart before the horse,” Rudich said.
A public meeting about the roundtable’s work on March 4 attracted nearly 80 people, most who were either surprised the collocation idea had already been discussed or opposed to the idea altogether.
One neighborhood resident described it as “raucous” and many protested the idea of adding the extra students, teachers and buses from Rock Terrace to the site.
Weiss, who sat in on the roundtable sessions, said he’s not opposed to the collocation.
But he does have concerns about the site’s size, the idea of having older Rock Terrace students mixed with middle school students and the negative impact students in both schools could feel by having to share the same site.
Members of the roundtable generally agreed that the two schools should be put in the same structure, but with clearly separate spaces. But they could share a cafeteria, kitchen, lobby spaces and physical education spaces, depending on the outcome of a feasibility study that would start with the Board of Education’s approval.
According to Bowers’ recommendation, the Rock Terrace section of the school will require extra security features, as some of the students may attempt to leave the facility during the day. Fencing for some of the outdoor play areas would be needed.
“There was no evidence in the analysis that I saw that showed the students that would be going to Tilden Middle School would receive an equitable experience as compared to their middle school counterparts at other middle schools,” Weiss said.
Bowers also said the collocation would allow for interaction between Rock Terrace and Tilden middle schoolers at social activities and assemblies. He said older Rock Terrace students would be able to work with students from nearby Walter Johnson High School. Both Tilden and Walter Johnson have “Best Buddies” programs, which bring together students with and without developmental disabilities.
Rudich said she would be fine with the collocation “if it’s the right decision,” but that MCPS should also look at putting Rock Terrace at the current Tilden Middle School building on Old Georgetown Road or at Julius West Middle School in Rockville, which is set for a revitalization project.
“It’s going to impact my community and my children,” Rudich said. “It’s a little dismaying.”
Photos via MCPS