Staffing issues hit home for father of special needs student

No one has taught Michael Ackerman more than his 8-year-old daughter. Her innocence and love for learning is inspiring, he says.

Sara Ackerman is one of about 5,000 special education students in the Charleston County School District. Her dad is frustrated over what he calls "ongoing staffing issues," though.

He reached out to ABC News 4 looking for answers because he needs to maintain his daughter's routine.

That routine in the Ackerman household is critical.

"It definitely helps her feel more secure," he said.

So every night around 5:30, young Sara heads to the kitchen to help make dinner. She has Down syndrome, a condition that leads to impairments in both cognitive ability and physical growth.

"The love that she has is just so pure and the way that she sees the world through her eyes with such joy and love -- it rewards you," Ackerman said.

That pure joy comes out when Sara is dancing. She's been doing it for years and is drawn to the beat -- so much so that she often pretends to play the harmonica.

It's a therapeutic activity.

"It soothes her, it excites her, but it also makes her happy," Ackerman said.

School is also a big help. Sara attends Mount Pleasant Academy; it's her fourth year.

"I attribute her tremendous growth especially over the last two years to her teacher and the people who have been around her," Ackerman said.

But this year Ackerman says the district hit a snag with Sara's class. Frustrated, Ackerman called and wrote emails expressing his concern.

"Not only did they increase the class size, they decreased the staff by one staff member. By doing that it created a very bad situation where her needs weren't being met the other children's needs weren't being met," he said.

The school had been meeting the state requirement for student to teacher ratio, but for Sara's class Ackerman says that's not enough.

"It seemed like the staff were just trying to survive every day. The classroom just needed another adult, another set of hands, another set of eyes to assist," he said.

The assistant executive director of special education for CCSD admits there's a lot of work ahead for the district. Madeline Jacobs is only six months into her new role and she's trying to resolve issues.

"I will add staff where I need to add staff," she said. "Sometimes we do have enough adults, we just need to be doing things a little bit differently and there are other times we need another adult."

Last year, the district made significant cuts to its budget to reign in a deficit. In March, the board voted to eliminate 117 teaching positions as a way to save $7 million.

A spokesperson for the district said none of them were special education teachers, but some were re-assigned. Human resources personnel were not able to say how many people were reassigned, though.

"It seemed to me that the district didn't find it to be a priority -- that they were looking a different ways to try to solve a problem that didn't cost as much money," Ackerman said.

Three months after Ackerman's first complaint, he says the district finally added a sub to replace the teaching assistant who was removed.

But he still has a number of frustrations.

"I don't know how long that sub is going to be there because the director never contacted me back. Still to this day, I have no idea what their plan is," he said.

Jacobs says her staff is continually focused on the needs of the special education students in the district.

Because every special needs classroom is different with its own unique challenges, Jacobs says they continually re-evaluate the staffing as well. She wants to reassure parents the district is fighting for every child.

It's a promise Ackerman appreciates -- but one he plans to hold them to.

"All I know is her and that is all I care about. In the end, I am her father and I am going to fight for her and her needs until my last breath, and I know other parents would do the same for their child," he said.

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