Students, staff and parents with disabilities are at a serious disadvantage when navigating Newton Middle School, according to Littleton Public Schools officials, forcing staff to adjust student …
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Students, staff and parents with disabilities are at a serious disadvantage when navigating Newton Middle School, according to Littleton Public Schools officials, forcing staff to adjust student schedules to minimize their time in classrooms that can take up to 20 minutes to reach via wheelchair.
On ballots that are being mailed out this week, district officials are asking voters to pass a nearly $300 million bond, which among numerous big-ticket projects, would allocate roughly $75 million to rebuild Newton, which sits at Arapahoe Road and Colorado Boulevard in Centennial.
The district estimates that the Newton rebuild, which would be accompanied by similar rebuilds of nearby Ames and Franklin elementary schools, would kick off in 2020 and be complete by fall of 2021. The Ames rebuild could be complete around the same time, with the Franklin rebuild estimated to be done by 2022.
The bond, if passed, would see property taxes for homeowners in the district — which mainly comprises Littleton and west Centennial — increase by $145 to $245 a year on a home valued at $500,000, according to district estimates.
While the bond would set aside money to address districtwide compliance issues with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, Newton sits highest on the priority list.
“It’s by far the worst in the district for ADA compliance,” said Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ewert at a Sept. 25 open house to discuss the bond package at Franklin Elementary School.
“We can’t just keep putting Band-Aids on these issues,” he said.
“Making Newton accessible to students with disabilities would be greatly improved with a new building.”
The problem, said Newton Principal James O’Tremba, is that the school was built in 1962, long before not only the ADA, but also before laws that saw kids with disabilities “mainstreamed” into public schools instead of institutions or private schools.
“The building was laid out to match the topography it sits on, so it’s on multiple different levels and layers,” O’Tremba said while walking through the school’s hallways.
While the school is technically ADA compliant, O’Tremba said, students using wheelchairs depend on electric wheelchair lifts to navigate the building’s numerous small staircases, some only four or five steps high. Each lift, however, must be operated by a trained staff member, meaning even the smallest staircases can take eight to 10 minutes to traverse in a wheelchair.
Getting from the front door to a lower-level classroom can take upward of 20 minutes, O’Tremba said, meaning school staff try to structure the schedules of students who use wheelchairs to minimize the time they spend in those classrooms.
“We work really hard to ensure that all kids are getting the same access to the same education, but this building makes that really tough,” O’Tremba said.
Beyond ADA access, the old building has other structural issues that are becoming increasingly difficult to address, O’Tremba said.
Primarily, O’Tremba said, the building is settling, meaning some hallways slant as much as five inches from one side to the other, and concrete under some exterior doors must be regularly ground down to ensure the doors still open and shut. Other issues include leaky roofs and spotty electricity, he said.
Addressing the building’s ADA issues could mean big things for students who use wheelchairs, said Dana Barton, director of the Rocky Mountain ADA Center, a federally funded program that offers technical assistance to companies and agencies regarding disabilities access.
“Any time you can help students with disabilities participate in mainstream activities, such as going to school in the same manner as the kids next to them, is a positive thing,” Barton said. “We have to make efforts to integrate people with disabilities into everyday life. Normalizing education for them helps them integrate into the workforce, which makes for a brighter economy.”
Reducing barriers for students with disabilities also can help their non-disabled peers learn to treat them in a more inclusive fashion, Barton said.
“It starts at a young age,” Barton said.
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