Parents challenge move of special education student from Normal Park Museum Magnet School

Parents challenge move of special education student from Normal Park Museum Magnet School

October 30th, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local - Breaking News

Luka Hyde

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

Normal Park school in Chattanooga

Photo by Kelly Wegel

A state judge will have to determine whether to believe a student's parents or his teachers as testimony continues in the special education due process case of 10-year-old Luka Hyde, who up until last year attended Normal Park Museum Magnet School.

Administrative law judge Marion Wall heard two very different narratives unfold Tuesday, when Deborah Hyde, Luka's mother, started to make her case against the school system. At issue is school officials' proposal last year to move her son from a general education class at Normal Park to a comprehensive development classroom, or CDC, a separate special education classroom for students with more intense needs at Red Bank Elementary.

Educators said Luka, who has Down syndrome, had "hit a wall" academically at Normal Park, where he received an array of supports and services because of his disability. But the family disagreed with the decision and instead moved their son to The Montessori School. Because they believe the school was unwilling to provide a federally mandated appropriate education, the family is asking the school system to reimburse their tuition costs. Testimony in the case was open to the public as the family has waived its privacy rights. The hearing is expected to last until Thursday at the school system's central office.

Hyde, who is arguing the case without an attorney, disagreed with the school's characterization of her son's progress.

"I believe that from Hamilton County's perspective, he just didn't belong there," she said.

Scott Bennett, Hamilton County's attorney, said school officials have a "good faith disagreement" with the Hydes over Luka's abilities.

"They are looking through the lens of their own professional development and data, which we suggests tells a very different story," Bennett said.

Hyde's first witness was Darrell Meece, a family friend who has spent time with Luka through Cub Scouts and social activities. Meece has a Ph.D. in child development, but was not allowed to offer testimony as an expert. He said Luka's abilities have surprised him. While he is lacking in language skills, Meece said the boy is able to cooperate with peers, pick up on social cues and complete many tasks on his own.

Meece visited Red Bank's CDC classroom for 90 minutes. He said students had very little interaction with each other -- a prospect that would be daunting for the very social Luka.

"I don't think it would be a good fit for him," Meece said. "And I don't think it would be a good fit for the classroom."

The hearing grew emotional and heated during the multihour testimony of Lisa Hope, Luka's special education teacher at Normal Park last year. After an exchange between Hope and Hyde at the lunch break, the judge moved the witness away from Hyde because she said she was intimidated.

Hope, who acted as the boy's case manager last school year, said Luka's academic performance was lagging. After repeating first grade, he was still unable to consistently write his first and last name last school year as a second-grader. He was unable to write several sentences on his own, didn't know the order of the alphabet and couldn't recall basic addition or subtraction quickly. Hope said he also had many behavioral problems like refusing to do work and encroaching the personal space of other kids.

"His academic performance was significantly below that of his peers," she said.

Upon Hyde's questioning, Hope said Luka was her first student with an intellectual disability. Hyde questioned whether the teacher's inexperience led to his poor academic performance.

Hope grew tearful on the stand several times, saying she worked exhaustively with Luka and had wanted nothing more than to see him make academic progress.

"I speak for myself and everyone in the building," she said. "We're very fond of Luka."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.