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December 7, 2023 33 mins
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(00:02):
Welcome the Pulse of the Region,brought to you by the Metro Hertford Alliance.
The Metro Hertford Alliance collaborates with investorsand partners to elevate the Hartford region
through economic development work, convening thecommunity around shared challenges, and providing local
chamber support. Learn more about theirmission and how to get involved at Metrohartford
dot com. Pulse of the Regionis produced in partnership with OKILL. Originally

(00:25):
founded as a school for the blindin eighteen ninety three, Okkill has provided
holistic, person centered services for individualswith disabilities for over one hundred and thirty
years. With empowerment and independence asits guiding principles. OKILL works in partnership
with the individuals it serves to provideresidential education and enrichment opportunities. Learn more
at okkillct dot org. Now here'syour host for Pulse of the Region.

(00:49):
Kate Balman. Hello, and welcometo Pulse of the Region. I'm your
host, Kate Bauman, here withthe show that spotlights all the great things
that are happening here throughout our GreaterHertford Region. I'm here in the studio
today with our guests in the buildingnow we call the Candy Cane Building here
in our state capital of Hartford,Connecticut. Today we are getting the pulse

(01:10):
about special education resources here in ourstate of Connecticut, and we have three
wonderful guests joining the conversation today forsuch an important topic to talk about.
So without further Ado would love tointroduce each of our guests. First,
from the Oak Hill School, heis the senior director of Education, Mark
Hedrick, Welcome to the show,great to be here, Thank you.

(01:32):
And next is we have a parentof an Oak Hill student and her name
is Simmy Valier. So Simmy,welcome to the show, thank you,
good morning. Last, but certainlynot Lease is from the State Education Resource
Center also known as CIRC. Itis the director of special education programs and
family and community Partnerships. We welcomeSteven Prophet. Thank you so much.

(01:55):
It's an honor and privilege to behere today. Of course, well it's
wonderful to have all of you heretoday. So first things first, would
love to do some introductions if thatworks for everybody, So why not Mark,
We'll start with you, if youyou know, we're lucky that every
single week we get to hear aboutOkill and all the incredible things. And
I say this every time, isthat there's always something more I learn about
Okill and I'm sure today will beno different. So if you could share

(02:19):
a bit with us about the OakHill School, absolutely. Oak Hill School
is a state accredited special education school, private school that serves students ages three
through twenty two. We have tenlocations throughout the state and locations from New
Hartford to Higgenham and points in between. We currently serve about one hundred and
fifty students with disabilities such as autism, intellectual disabilities, medically fragile, and

(02:45):
many more. My role as asenior director of education is really multifaceted.
I'm involved with day to day operations. I handle transportation in educational programming.
I also manage a resource allocation andrecruitment and retention of professional staff and district
referrals. Okay, so you knowquite the busy day you have a little

(03:07):
bit in day out. Well,fantastic, So we'll definitely talk more about
all that day in and day atwork. But Simmy first would love to
hear from you, and if youcould talk a little bit about your relationship
with O Kelm. Sure, Somy son is seventeen years old right now.
He has been in the oak Hillsystem for right out a year.
He has been disabled in special educationall his life, and he is absolutely

(03:31):
thriving in a way that we neverthought would be possible in this school system.
So we are in Oak Hill familyand also huge fans of the program
and everybody who's here, and I'lllove to talk to you more about why
he's doing so well. There definitelyno very excited to hear. That's wonderful
news. So looking forward to hearingmore. But last but not Lea Stephen

(03:53):
was will give a nice little introductionto you if you could talk about the
State Education Resource also known as CIRCUE. The State Education Resource Center is an
quasi public entity that's written into legislationto support the Bureau of Special Education,
the State Department of Education on behalfof students, families and educators who really

(04:19):
work and support students with disabilities.Okay, so we've been around, you
know, probably close to fifty moreyears, and part of our response legislative
responsibilities are we house a lending libraryfor all educators to around all the different

(04:39):
special education assessments to support students.We support all the programming for the Bureau
of Special Education around many of thedifferent indicators such as early childhood at least
restrictive environment, dropout prevention, disproportionality, secondary transition, sld dyslexia, all

(05:03):
of those different initiatives to support ourstudents and families around those programs. Okay,
and we also have the opportunity tocreate resources. We build webinars,
we build tools to help support ourfamilies and support our educators on behalf of

(05:27):
students with disabilities. Grey. Thankyou so much, Steven. And it
would love to kind of even takethings like a step back here too and
just talk a little bit at ahigh level. You know the resources that
are available here for families. Youtouched on some of them here, but
I think it's so important. Connecticut, I think is definitely special in terms
of kind of what is offered forfamilies. So if you could at a

(05:49):
high level touch on that first.Great. At CIRK, we work very
closely. We're collaborative partners with allof our school districts, all of our
app which is like okill, aprivate approof special replacement. Our risk are
six risks which are crack aces atAdvanced Learn to really work in collaboration on

(06:13):
behalf of the Bureau of Special Educationto support our families. We have a
brand new IEP we've put in whichis now in full full implementation. A
big component of that new IP isreally building parent knowledge around the IEP,
what their role is, so thatthey are equal equitable partners at the Planning

(06:35):
and Placement team meeting, so thatthey are informed that they have an equal
voice, they are active participants inthe development of a high quality IEP for
their children. We also try todo a lot of different types of webinars.
We have many different types of parentresources to support families and build their

(07:00):
knowledge around the PPT process, theIEP development process. We work, we
support the Bureau Special Education resources.We have a lot of resources around secondary
transition SLD dyslexia, just to buildparent knowledge so they understand their role and
how to help inform them about whattheir children may need, and work with

(07:24):
our school districts to do parent trainings. We help so they want us to
come in and do some parent trainingsaround for some of our families who need
more intensive instruction and strategies around thatprocess. That's what we are here for.
WOWED by the Bureau of Special Educationto support that work. And we're

(07:44):
grounded in equity. We're grounded inreally you know, equitable practices to support
all of our families across the state. Okay, and now how does this
state support differ I guess compared toother states throughout the country, other regions.
Well, I'm going to think I'mgoing to say that our state,
all the fifty states are funded bythe federal grant and the Individuals with Disabilities

(08:07):
Education Act, which is a federallaw, and then moneys come to each
of the states. So I'm goingto like our Bureau of Special Education.
Most all the states have a Bureauof Special Faction to support compliance and quality
indicators. And I'm going to saymost of our state, all fifty states

(08:28):
probably have a parent center. Wehave the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center. It's
called sea PACK, which is ourwhich is our advocacy center for all of
our families children with disabilities. Sothey create resources, webinars that you can
call them. If families are havingchallenges getting what they need, we will

(08:52):
always refer them to CIRCU as wellas some of our families because they really
help support the role of family inthe IEP and the special education process,
which is a very complicated law.Definitely, definitely, that's what I'm going
to say. Simmy's nodding her headthere. Complicated. It's a very nuanced

(09:13):
law that has so we really tryto create those opportunities so it's really understood
and accessible to the families. Right. Well, wonderful, thank you for
talking on some of those resources.And Mark would love to hear from you
a little bit on you know,oak Hill's model is a little bit unique
in a in a very good way, and so would love if you could
kind of talk about that and howdoes that differentiate from different kind of traditional

(09:37):
educational settings. Oh, certainly gladto talk about that. So we really
pride ourselves on setting the standard andempowering students to learn through meaningful functional activities
where we pride ourselves on being innovative, creative and providing those experiences which build
self advocacy for our students, reinforcethe dignity of students, and we also

(10:01):
utilize a comprehensive transdisciplinary approach. WhenI can go into that a little more
if you want to, but thatwould be great. So I can tell
you exactly what that looks like.So our transdisciplinary approach has our related services,
our ot r PTR, speech,our behavior, our teachers, anybody

(10:24):
who's going to be working with thatkid giving input into that student's day so
that the student, so that thestudent can effectively access their environment. So
it may mean that they need aspecial piece of equipment or a special adaptation,
So we have all of that expertiseat the table if you will,

(10:45):
okay, to help with programming forthat student. We teach in context of
what the students would be doing throughoutthe day, so it doesn't look traditional
students sitting at a desk doing papers. If they could do worksheets at a
desk, they probably wouldn't be withus. So we're doing things like a

(11:07):
cooking lesson, so everybody cooks,Oh, we have to we have to
eat, We have to you know, provide for ourselves. So you would
see math science reading worked into thatlesson while the students also working on their
independence at the same time. Mhm. So it could be social skills

(11:28):
out in the community. Ok.Students are out at a grocery store or
on a shopping trip, or ata park, and they're learning how to
interact with their environment out there,there are rules to follow and everything is
a learning opportunity with our students.I like that everything is a learning opportunity.
And Simmy would love you touched alittle bit just on you know,

(11:50):
your son has been there for abouta year, correct, and you know,
so would love what first kind ofconnected you with Oakhill and their services.
So I wish it would like amore of a heartwarming story, but
it was a little bit more ofa disaster. And my son had,
like I said, he's been inspecial education and in an outsource school setting,
you know, his whole educational life. But during the pandemic, he

(12:13):
ended up as a long term impatientin psychiatric hospital. He was really struggling.
He was there for a year,and then when they had gotten to
a place where they could no longerprovide for him, they kind of send
him home. But there was noyou know, community plan. So while
we were sort of scrambling to getall of those things put together, and

(12:33):
he couldn't return to his previous school, and we were looking at all sorts
of schools, you know, throughthe district, and nobody would take him,
mostly because of the way that hisfile looks, and we were in
court with the State of Connecticut thatwas saying if we could not get him
educated, then he would need tobecome a ward of the state, and

(12:54):
you know that was required. Andso I was really reaching out to everybody
who had a school with a anda thousand miles of us, like,
do we have to move like wewere really our family was falling apart.
And I got connected through our districtto Mark and it was the game changer
for us. And from the veryfirst phone call when he said, I
have the file, but I liketo meet your son and I like to

(13:16):
hear more about him. And theway that you know Christian looks in a
folder over seventeen years versus the waythat you know he is in real life
are obviously two different things, likeall of us, and I went to
go visit Okhill School. Christian declinedto come. He was still not in
a great place. And the momentI walked in the door of the Bristol

(13:37):
classroom, I knew this was theplace for him. And I had seen
probably sixty schools in the last ninedays, and every time I walked in
the door, I went, thisis not going to work. Yeah,
just you know, knowing my sonand knowing his needs and what he was
capable of and what he was not, and there was certainly a magic that

(13:58):
really you can feel that from thestudents learning in the way that Mark just
described, which is that they werefunctioning. They were not sitting at desk
with noise canceling headphones. And Iam in no way knocking that because for
some parents that's a dream, that'swhere their child would thrive. For me,
it was not. And this environmentwhere I saw twenty different kids that

(14:18):
were operating on twenty different things,but cohesively and all in their own way,
and I knew that it would bea fit. And you know,
I said, how can I getmy son into school here? And that's
really where it started. And hewas placed very quickly and we have remained
a family and he is home andthriving. And so I mean, my
relationship with Okill was that they savedour family. That is, Oh my

(14:41):
goodness, that is so great.That's extremely touching. And Mark, I
don't know of anything you want tochime in on that experience from your perspective.
I get chills every time I hearthat. So thank you, and
it's just how we it's just howwe approach things. Like Simmy said,
you know there are other programs outthere. We're not the be all end

(15:03):
all. I'm not going to pretendto be that. For students who need
something different and need something non traditional, you know, that's what we provide.
And Christian is a perfect example.And I can I can tell you
of many other students very similar stories. I saw Christian today and I was

(15:24):
giving a tour to a student andhe came right up. He's like he's
the mayor of the classroom. Hecame right up and he introduced himself,
and you know, that's great,and I still I still remember. I
think it was about two weeks afterhe started. I gave you a call
and Simmy, Simmy started crying andI said, oh no, what,
what what's happening? And she said, it's been wonderful. He's he comes

(15:46):
home, he talks about having friendsand everybody likes me and home run.
I mean, I just I lovethat story. That is the two week
mark. Christian had come home andI was asking him bout school and he
said, everybody likes me and nobodythinks that I'm stupid. And the impact
on that I think really for mewas the reversal of it, realizing that

(16:10):
for so long he must have beenfeeling like nobody liked him and everybody thought
that he was stupid. And whata game changer it was for his ability
to learn and be educated and behappy and be comfortable. And he's just
i mean made leaps and bounds,not just behaviorally, mentally, health wise,
but also educationally, Like he's learningon all new things that were never

(16:33):
even you know, in the prospectfor him, things or never thought that
he would be able to grasp,learn, comprehend and he's just doing better
and better and better every day.That is absolutely incredible to here. And
you know, Mark, how doa lot of families come to Okay,
here's you know, one story withSimeon with Christian But you know, is
there a way for families to getmore information and to kind of see,

(16:56):
you know, where would be agood fit for their families potentially, Well,
let me tell you about how weget students. Then I can talk
about the latter part of that greathow they can find out more information.
So our students are referred to uspurely through the districts, through the PPT,
the Planning and Placement Team. Whenit's determined at the PPT that a

(17:18):
district is not able to program appropriatelyor provide what we call faipe a free
appropriate public education for the student.At the PPT, they make a determination
to send what they call packets orI guess what we call referral packets out,
send them out to districts or toprivate schools such as ours, and

(17:44):
it's received through our referral team.We look it over and typically call the
parent within forty eight hours and reachout to the district and start the ball
rolling. Talk to the parent,provide a tour, and get to meet
the student in the classroom. Wetypically go out to the environment where the
student is. Sometimes the student's beenat home for a while because the district

(18:07):
can't find a placement. Sometimes they'rein another placement and we go out there
and kind of get eyes on andgo from there. Okay, okay,
that's great, more information. Sowe do have an open door policy means
parents don't have to wait for aPPT and they can reach out to us

(18:29):
through our website. There's a phonenumber on there. There's also OKAYLCT dot
org and they can arrange for atour. Okay, I've done them many
times. I have three or fourother people on my referral team that'll be
happy to do it. So ifthey'd like more information, they can certainly
reach out. Okay, fantastic andcertainly a lot of great advice there on

(18:51):
kind of where parents can go oryou know, but Steven would love to
hear from you a little bit tooon just you know, kind of where
where do families start? You know, I think certainly it sounded, you
know, Simmy had mentioned it waskind of a situation where you needed to
look for additional support or different typesof support, but in many cases,
you know, that's not the case. So if you could kind of talk

(19:11):
a little bit on just how thefamily start to navigate, so you me,
I just want to show you shareda real good personal story of finding
a program that really where the programmingand services and supports matched your child's needs
in light of your child's circumstances,which is really a great story. And

(19:33):
then Mark, you shared a reallygood example of you know where the Oak
Hill, which is an approved privatespecial placement is part of our continuum of
services from least restrictive, which isreally general education classroom to the more restrictive
environments, where are some of ourstudents require more structured settings to better to

(19:56):
best support their needs. But we'repart of what where the state is working
really closely and our school districts areworking really hard and closely with our families
because right now the family role inthe IEP development process is critical and elevated.
We want our the families have tobe you know, we want them

(20:18):
to be equal partners. And atthe same time, we have the state
has put together a number of asynchronousmodules around the parents' role in the process,
how to reach out for services andsupports, how to begin to access

(20:40):
you know, the possibility of specialeducation through the IEP process. And then
we're working hard with our you know, working hard with our school districts.
We provide trainings, they provide trainingsaround you know, the how do we
more effectively engage our feels flies inthe process. It's a complicated process.

(21:03):
It's there's a lot of paperwork,there's a lot of legal forms. How
do we really bring it down tomuch more of a parent level so it's
more effectively understood and even from moreof a deeper equitilens some of our families
who are multi lingual and how dowe ensure that they understand this complicated process

(21:30):
and it's and understand a process it'sin our country that may not even be
in their culture. Interesting, Yes, so we really are working hard to
how do we really ensure that ourfamilies have access to really understand the special
education process. And from there,we really encourage our families to understand and

(21:51):
and navigate the process through the Parent'sGuide to Special Education, which is updated
resource. It's written more in parentfriendly language so they understand the whole process.
We use seapack to really help them. Sometimes our families need more in
depth, individualized conversations to understand andbreak down the process, so we use

(22:17):
seapack. We have AFT camp whichis a real strong parent partnership that we
have in the state for our familiesfrom the Caribbean and other cultures, Okay,
to help them understand the process.And then we're always you know seapack
just like they haven't. You havepeople can call O kill or people can

(22:40):
call us at any time, Okay, can call seapack at any time and
we will provide them overviews, understandingsand if we can sometimes give parents here,
try this and help them navigate,maybe make have you tried meeting with
your school district first, and maybeset up a separate meeting. But the

(23:00):
key is how do we establish thatpartnership that we want our families to have
with their school districts so that theycan continually build good EEPs and sure that
the parents needs are being met.Yes, definitely so important. And Simmy,
you've been smiling and nodding on alot of comments that Stephen said,
you know, from your perspective,any you know, kind of recommendations from
you know, for families or parentswho may be looking to kind of navigate

(23:22):
what's next and what's best for us? You know, I would love your
thoughts. Yeah. I tell everybodywho asks me, don't hesitate to ask.
And I think, especially when Ifirst started, and I know other
parents have shared with me, thatthere's this instinct to sort of handle it
on your own. And how dowe stay as mainstream as possible or least
restrictive And that's not always you know, it's best and as parents, we

(23:47):
know our children better than anybody.We know what they need. You have
that gut feeling, trust it andthen there is somewhere a form or someone
to help you, or a program. It's they're there, and it may
take you ten different people to ask, it may take you a stack of
paperwork. It's absolutely worth it.You'll you know, when you feel the

(24:07):
magic, you know, don't putthe shame aside and get down and say
how can I get my son intothis school? You know, just sort
of it. Even though it isa very very complicated process. You know
the art of loving our children andsupporting them is relatively basic. And as
long as you're doing that and advocatingfor them, you're on the right path.
And just keep going, just keepgoing the path. Yeah, extremely

(24:33):
well said, extremely well said.And you know, certainly the last kind
of piece of the show would loveto talk about is advocacy, where you
know it it seems everything from advocatingfor your own family and then you know,
certainly there's a lot of people advocatingfor resources across the state. So
when to Stephen, I'll start withyou here, is you know, really,
how can parents and guardians kind oflook to the advocate for their own,

(24:56):
for their children's needs, for theireducational needs, because certainly there's a
information you can get. But thenalso too, is there a piece where
you know you'd really recommend on theadvocating side. Well, first of all,
I feel parents and families to reallybegin to establish a strong relationship and
partnership with their schools. To reallyfor our families to really work closely with

(25:18):
their special education teachers who are reallytheir case managers. To reach out and
meet with your school principles and assistantprinciples who really oversee the process at the
school level. And then above theschool level, it's really our directors of
special education and the supervisors of specialeducation. They are there to oversee the

(25:40):
whole process, and sometimes our familiesneed to maybe go to that level to
better understand and better advocate and supportfor their children because sometimes it may not
happen at the district at the schoolbased level, and that's all part of
the whole process for you know,for our families and to really get to

(26:00):
know their children's i EP to reallyhave an active voice, ask questions.
As Simmy said, it's a complicatedsystem. Definitely, I don't understand something
that's being said at the PPT,the planning and place, ask questions.
It's a very as simy knows theiracronyms. How many? Oh, because
I can't even imagine the amount we'vebeen counting here around assessments and you know,

(26:25):
around terms that are used. Andhow do we really if parents don't
ask questions? Okay, because theyhave to be equal partners with it's a
school based team and the parent isan equal partner. Okay, great?
And Mark what, Yeah, Iwould love for you to chime in on
this as well, and you know, just really on that advocacy and what

(26:47):
can people do and what can ourcommunity do too? First of all,
all of what Steven just said,develop that relationship with the school. Educate
yourself on the process. Don't bea ready to ask questions, even the
tough questions. And that starts withall of our students at their their homeschool,
their public school level. There aremany organizations out there that can help

(27:14):
support parents seek that's special education equityfor kids. Steven spoke about c PACK.
The Connecticut Department of Education website isalso a great resource. You can
do a really good search. Ithink they redid the website recently. You
can search by term and it'll findanything you need in there. About what

(27:38):
can we do you know, talkto your legislators, talk to your the
people at the local level, Boardof education level, state legislators about providing
resources for all of our students.Joined parent groups. Parent groups are huge,

(28:00):
There's a lot of expertise in thoserooms. I commonly attend the Sikh
conferences and just love talking to theparents that come. And I'm still learning
myself. I've been in this fieldfor about twenty five years now, Okay,
I think I go back about twentyyears with Steven. We've worked in

(28:21):
a couple of other districts before.Okill, Oh, yes, yeah,
And I'm still learning as well,Okay, fantastic. I thin just that
parents, we don't want them tofeel alone in this process. It can
be a very lonely process having achild with a disability. It brings on
a range of emotions. But knowingthat, you know, we want partnerships,

(28:45):
that there are other families that wewant families to engage in at schools.
Many of our some of our schooldistricts have good strong special education parent
teacher associations Okay, accepts or sceptos, which bring parents who have children with
disabilities together to talk about some ofthe ups and downs and some of the

(29:06):
challenges, some of the victories,some of the that they face. So
that's a real strong group as well. But we really want our families not
to feel like they're alone in thisprocess, and there are people out there
to help support them and help themnavigate through a complicated process. Especially you
have birth to three here in thestate, that's a whole separate system.

(29:29):
We at SIRK help support the bureausfrom three to twenty two, and then
after twenty two there's a whole otherprocess that we meet. So pearents all
that's a lot parents have to bea part. Yet, so everything that
you're saying, I've been sitting overhere just like shaking my head smiling because
it's so on point to the waythat it is. And I would tell

(29:51):
every parent and family to embrace thealphabet of different services and there are so
many, and to do it beforeyou need them, you know, go
ahead and get on the phone,call DDS, get on the phone with
DCF, get on the phone witheverybody who's got an acronym or who's falls
in that alphabet. Introduce yourself,tell them about your child, and then
you know, if you find yourselfin a situation, and I hope nobody

(30:14):
ever does, but when you do, you know, like our family,
it was the first thing I didwhen I realized that we were in a
bad place. I called everybody,like, I got everybody on the phone
and I said, I don't knowwhat anybody can do to help, but
we need help. And having establishedthose relationships with the district and those services
in advance was so helpful because Iwasn't cold calling. I was like,

(30:36):
hey, John, right, guesswhat I have going on. And I
think that the more comfortable that youcan get and sort of take away the
fear, because myself is a specialneeds parent, I mean, those are
some of those acronyms are scary.It feels invasive, it feels like you're
having to, you know, sortof share your whole family scenario. And
my advice to everybody would be justget comfortable with it because we're not alone.

(31:00):
Our stories echo throughout the state.There are so many of us.
Our kids are you know, maybenot mainstream, but they're not alone either,
and so you know, get involvedwith everybody that's there to help.
So when you need it, it'seasy to get to. It's easy to
get too, well, Simmy,thank you so much for sharing your story
and for sharing kind of inspiration forothers. I know I certainly was really

(31:21):
touched. I'm sure a lot ofour listeners were as well. So thank
you so much. Thank you forhaving me. No, this was great,
of course, of course, andreally quick. If Stephen, if
you don't mind just saying, veryquick, website where people can go for
information, and then Mark will putyou on the spot again. For more
information about OKL. So for theBureau of Special Education, you can go
on CT dot go slash b SC. Bureau Special Education circ is www dot

(31:47):
ctcirc dot org, and then cpackis www dot cp AC i NC dot
org. Okay, and I wantto just on their web site. They
actually have a resource which is likefor all the acronyms broken down by what
they mean. So see that's whatI should have read prior to the show.

(32:10):
We share it all the time,so don't understand what so they know
what they mean? Nice, verygood and Mark for more information about OKILL
and all of your services. Where'sthe best spot for people? Oh wow,
absolutely, So we have a websitethat's OKILLCT dot org. You can
go on there and find you knowif you're looking specifically for the school,

(32:31):
or you can you might be lookingfor something for other disabilities. We're kind
of We're the largest private provider ofservices for people with special needs in the
state, so our schools. Look. There's a link to our school on
there. You can find mine myinformation. Feel free to call me directly
or any of my other wonderful teambe happy to answer any questions, or

(32:57):
you can call eight six zero twofour two two four and you can be
directed to the right person to talkto. Okay, nice, well,
Thank you again so much all forbeing here, fantastic and important conversation,
and for all of the details abouttoday's show, you can visit pulseoftheregion dot
com. We would like to givea special thank you to our partner Okill

(33:17):
and of course thanks to you forlistening. I'm Kate Bauman. Go out
and make it a good day herein Connecticut.
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