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Consultant’s report on HMS special education program dominates School Committee agenda

by | Sep 22, 2023 | Education, Featured: Education

A report that audited the middle school’s special education program was at the core of several discussions during Thursday night’s School Committee meeting.

AthenaK12 Educational Consulting studied SPED services in Grades 6-8 in the fall of 2022, the findings of which can be found in a 37-page document on the district’s website.

Athena gathered information by reviewing documents, site visits, observation of instruction, and one-on-one and small group interviews with SPED and general education teachers, according to the report.

The consultants praised staff members for their passion for assisting students and their expertise, noting they had a “strong, positive work ethic.”

The study also pointed out flaws such as lack of time to give direct academic support, a shortage of reading instruction, a shortage of SPED teachers to provide services in both the co-teaching and pull-out models, absence of space for providers like physical and occupational therapists, and a need for a director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for special education at the secondary level.

The report also highlighted the need for professional development training in co-teaching, better clarity in intensive program IEPs (individualized education plans), more time for planning and team meetings and more.

The consultants suggested that scheduling was determining services and recommended special education students have fewer related arts options and receive more direct instruction.

Concerns expressed during public comments

During the public comment section of the meeting, a trio of speakers expressed concern not only about the shortfalls talked about in the report but also what they described as a “breakdown of communication and respect” between administration and teachers.

A proposal last year to cut SPED personnel was referred to because it contrasts with the consultant’s findings.

Heather Marusa noted she sees teachers giving up planning and lunch times to help de-escalate “meltdowns” by students and noted principals pitch in when needed in classrooms, but not administration.

Paula Toomey said she is “alarmed and dismayed” by the lack of pull-out services for children, a lack of respect for SPED students and teachers, and the shortfall of staff.

Sabine St. Pierre talked about last year’s “strife” between the parties “who should be sharing cohesive partnerships to solve problems.” She said a climate survey should be done with teachers, administrators and the School Committee, with everyone open to criticism.

“We can only get better when we learn from our mistakes,” St. Pierre said.

She said “lack of transparency” has been at the heart of problems and “the perception of many” is there have been “attempts to pull the wool over the eyes” of parents. She added parents had to sign a petition to initially access the report.

“I appreciate the community engagement and interest in this particular piece,” said School Committee chair Nancy Cavanaugh.

Recommendations of report summarized

Director of Student Services Abigail Hanscom led a presentation summarizing recommendations in the audit along with Nicole Murray, SPED director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Grades 6-12; Beth Callahan, who holds that title at the elementary level; and Matt Lefebvre, HMS principal.

Hanscom noted the importance of ongoing team communication, development of a co-teaching model plan, professional development and participation in the budget process.

Lefebvre described the START/EMPOWER programs, agreeing with the consultant’s call for a designated teacher for the latter, currently covered by the adjustment counselor and two paraprofessionals.

START, he said, is a short-term transitional program for students following a traumatic event or illness. EMPOWER gives further support on the social/emotional issues side.

School Committee member Holly Morand said she wondered how long the issues in the Athena report were going on without intervention. She said she worries about staff members and making sure they have what they need.

Hanscom said she felt welcome and supported since joining the district in July, including by the superintendent and other administrators.

School improvement plans highlighted

Another major portion of the meeting involved presentations by building principals on their school improvement plans.

Having a shared plan were elementary-level principals — Lauren Dubeau (Marathon), David Brauninger (Elmwood) and Matt Cotter (Hopkins). Brauninger was absent from the meeting because of a Parents Night commitment.

Some of the goals concerned social and emotional learning, culturally and linguistically sustaining practices across grade levels, and literacy and the implementation of new writing curriculum — including “flexible, small group and cross-curricular opportunities.”

Social and emotional learning and equity also were cited by Lefebvre, as were targeted writing assignments within science, English language arts, history and social sciences. He also talked about culturally responsive classroom instruction and addressing the SPED students’ needs as they transition to Grade 6.

At the high school, Principal Evan Bishop outlined goals including items that build upon what the middle school is doing in terms of targeted writing assignments (to include in math) and culturally responsive protocol.

He also talked about the “student experience” and giving students “more voice and choice in their learning,” data collection on their feelings of inclusion, and offering more “real world” skills and post-secondary options.

School Committee members liked how high school students would be given more input into how and what they learn.

“I love how much you ask your kids what needs to be improved. Everyone needs something different out there to transition to the real world to feel safe out there,” Morand said.

Nancy Cavanaugh said the “voice and choice and assessments are really exciting ways to catch kids in the way they are assessed best. … It allows for multiple learning styles and allows kids to shine in different ways and show what they know.”

Bishop said 70 percent of seniors participate in a capstone experience, which involves students working in a job experience for a few months instead of attending classes. They later present to the community.

Bishop noted he hoped that program expanded to include all students. “This is the conversation we’re having at the high school now,” he said.

The principal also said he is working with local businesses to possibly offer a job reality fair for sophomores and juniors.

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