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2nd parent group, director highlight special-education issues

Special-education issues again were the focus of the School Committee at its June 6 meeting -- this time, Inae Hwang, chair of the Special Education Parents Advisory Committee, was on the agenda. Hwang gave a mixed report, praising the elementary school special-education services while criticizing those at the middle school and high school.

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At the same meeting, Special Education Director Allison Elmer told the committee about new special-education programs at the Ottoson and high schools.

In addition, rising enrollment and classroom space garnered concern from committee members. The first read of the 2019-20 school calendar fixed start dates and vacation times, but School Committee meeting times will continue to be discussed.

Parent group assessment

Hwang, giving an update on parents’ experiences with special-education services in the elementary schools, spoke about the change in direction in special education in the last five years. “They could not be happier,” she reported, referring to parents of elementary students needing special-education services, and there were “almost no complaints.”

When parents are dissatisfied, Hwang attributed their unhappiness to a difficult history with special education and “with budgeting,” which is not sufficient because of enrollment issues.

However, “areas of concern,” Hwang reported, “are still with the Ottoson and the high school.”

She conceded, that while the individual education plans (IEPs) “look great” for special education, they are not for general education while teaching special-ed students. She recommended that “general educators have to step up to be part of the process.”

General-education instructors, she pointed out, “while they do not have special-education instruction, are still responsible for providing these services.”

Hospitalization tutors also have drawn complaints from parents of middle and high school students. Students who are not able to attend classes for an extended period can have an educator visit their home or medical treatment facility. These tutors, according to reports Hwang has received, are “woefully underqualified at the middle and high school level.”

She suggested that low pay might lead to the problem.

Committee member Bill Hayner said middle and high school teachers have many more students and are not able to know the child as well. Hwang suggested a more important factor was “leadership and vision” and “some of it requires the administration to have this on the agenda.” She was referring to general-education teachers providing services for special-education students. 

To illustrate how middle and high school teachers could accommodate students who need special services, she cited the case of one seventh-grade teacher “who was very skilled in pedagogy and when the assessment might not fit the child,” he allowed the students to demonstrate knowledge of the subject in other ways. For inclusion, she continued, “we are not just talking about the subject area but the child.”

“Teachers feel it [special education] is not my job,” said Hwang. Part of the problem is the unconscious bias toward “ableism,” which she describes as follows: “Either you can or you can’t, and if you can’t, you get help from someone else. General educators are not on the same page with special-education educators.”

Speaking at public participation at its May 23 meeting was Deborah Savage, head of the newly active Arlington Special Education Alliance, told the School Committee: “We think you need a strategic plan for special education.” Read a summary of that meeting >> 

Elmer responds with expansion plans

In a second and lengthy presentation about special education, Elmer gave an overview, a description of two new programs and a report about additional plans. She said there will be a third report to the School Committee in the near future. Read the full presentation >> 

In her overview, Elmer listed all staff members and their titles, including those who render related services. The program services 1,050 students with IEPs, 916 of them educated in Arlington public schools.

Special-education students are educated in the Menotomy Preschool, in the high school; in supported learning centers -- called Compass, Reach and Summit -- and in regular classrooms.

Two programs are slated for expansion – the Compass program at the high school and Summit at Ottoson. Compass is new to the high school and will allow more students to remain in the school system and not have to receive services out of the district. The focus of the program is learning skills of daily living in a specially designed classroom setting and developing postsecondary goals.

The Summit program will add a full-time teacher. Summer plans are to reorganize the program to best use the skills of this additional teacher.

Finally, Elmer reviewed numerous ways she and her staff have addressed recommendations of the state LABBB evaluation of the Arlington's special-education program. In contrast to Hwang's report, Elmer said this evaluation praised the Arlington model for co-teaching. However, there will be further training in co-teaching this summer.

Expanding on the practice of co-teaching, Elmer explained “the special educator is not expected to be an expert in the content area.” And, although she admitted “this is an area where it still needed to grow,” she stressed “both parties are taking something to the table.”

Other responses to the LABBB recommendations include more training for teaching assistants and paraprofessionals plus targeting reading skills, with a more refined analysis of reading disorders. Another goal was the creation of teaching partnerships to facilitate co-teaching.

Growing enrollment forecasts, future modulars

Superintendent Kathleen Bodie reported that the “internal prediction” for fall kindergarten numbers is 536, “although that could change.” The greater challenge at the moment, she said, was classroom space.

One possible strategy was to expand buffer zones to allow for more flexibility in student assignments. Bodie reported that the Brackett School already has four first-grade classes, and while kindergarten has only three, it could grow over the summer. While music rooms could be used as classrooms, forcing music to be conducted in individual classrooms creates problems with noise.

Bodie mentioned another strategy -- the future use of modular classrooms. The recommendation of modular classrooms was made earlier during public comment by Carmen Barrett, a Bishop School parent.

She described the Bishop as being “between a rock and a hard place -- increasing enrollment and no place to put it.” She requested a modular classroom to alleviate overcrowding in the Bishop, a more popular choice for parents because of the after-school program.

However, Bodie spoke of a temporary solution for the Bishop that involved creating a new classroom out of two existing classrooms but admitted that, in the future, modular classroom might be needed.

In other business, the committee listened to math and computer science program updates -- read them here -- heard the monthly financial report, discussed the district goals and reviewed the first read of the 2019-20 school calendar.  While the start dates and vacations are set, the dates for School Committee meetings will be discussed next time. See the proposed calendar >> 

The committee held an executive session to discuss the superintendent’s contract and then adjourned at 10 p.m.  

June 1, 2019: Parent group urges broad strategy for special education

Dec. 17, 2017: Special-education deficiencies tied to difficulties in staffing, training, changing leaders

Sept. 20, 2017: State review of special ed cites 13 issues, draws committee differences

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Jo Anne Preston was published Friday, June 14, 2019.

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