At the end of its 50th year in 2024, Earlywood Educational Services will no longer be assisting students.
Earlywood’s board, consisting of Executive Director Angela Balsley and superintendents from six school districts in Johnson, Bartholomew and Shelby counties, voted unanimously to dissolve the service center, citing concerns about maintenance issues that stem from the building’s architecture.
The school in Franklin is not part of any particular school district, but has assisted special education students at Franklin, Greenwood, Edinburgh, Indian Creek, Southwestern Consolidated and Flat Rock-Hawcreek schools. While just 20 to 25 students were receiving services in the Earlywood building itself, thousands of students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, receive assistance from Earlywood employees at their school buildings in areas such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech pathology, visual impairment and mental and behavioral health, Balsley said.
Earlywood operates its in-house offerings through a program called New Connections, which provides students with emotional, behavioral and academic help. Franklin Community School Corporation has 1,034 special education students, 11 of whom receive assistance at the Earlywood building itself, Superintendent David Clendening said.
“The building is set up for kids that have struggled in their home school and that becomes the least restrictive environment for educational services,” Clendening said.
The building itself has a unique architectural design, with landscaping going up its slanted walls. The design, originally meant to prevent damage from tornadoes, has led to maintenance issues and leaks. The cost to rebuild the exterior of the structure is too much to justify keeping the building open, Balsley said.
“It was designed to be tornado-proof so bad weather could come from the west side and roll up over the building,” Balsley said. “At the time there were about 100 students with significant disabilities and they didn’t feel they could get them safely where they needed to be. Erosion started happening from the berms. It’s a dirt-clad building and erosion was creating water issues and it was coming into the building.”
The process of permanently closing Earlywood started Wednesday with the vote and will continue through the end of the 2023-24 school year. That period of time is necessary for schools to transition services in-house and consider hiring some of the 78 employees from Earlywood, such as speech pathologists, school psychologists, occupational therapists, coordinators, special education teachers, social workers and mental health therapists, many of whom already spend much of their day in those school districts’ buildings assisting students, Balsley said.
“The need from those students in the county exists, so superintendents are working together to offer deployment opportunities for employees within the school districts,” she said. “Many of our employees will be offered positions to do the same or similar work.”
School districts already contribute funds to Earlywood to pay for the salaries of their employees, so hiring staff members as a part of the school district once Earlywood dissolves is not a financial concern, said Terry Terhune, superintendent of Greenwood Community School Corporation.
The school district has 12 employees from Earlywood working with special education students, he said.
“We spent an hour and a half meeting with employees from Earlywood and giving them letters of interest to keep them with the Greenwood family,” Terhune said. “When things wrap up there we intend for them to join us.”
Greenwood schools currently has about 600 students receiving services through Earlywood Education, with three or four getting assistance at the Earlywood building. When it’s time to transition those students away from the Earlywood location, their parents will meet with a case conference committee, composed of a general education teacher, a special education teacher or director and a principal or other building administrator to determine the next steps for that student, Terhune said.
Greenwood officials are exploring other external services, such as Rise Learning Center and Damar Services, both in Indianapolis, as another avenue to help students, he said.
At Indian Creek schools, which has about 150 students who receive Earlywood services, the planning process will be challenging but beneficial, said Tim Edsell, superintendent.
“It’ll be a lot of meetings, looking to see what services we need to provide which students and however many employees we need,” he said. “It’s a challenge to do all the planning, but I feel it would be a benefit to our students, being able to employ our own professionals to help students within our corporation.”