BKW students with disabilities scored in lowest 10%

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
Renderings of what the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school campus will look like following construction under the district’s capital project were on display at the Feb. 25 board of education meeting.

BERNE — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District has been identified by the state education department as a potential target school, in need of intervention for its special-education program. Superintendent Timothy Mundell believes that this is due to students not taking state-required tests in the past.

BKW students with disabilities who were tested were among the lowest 10-percent in their group for English, math, and science, and were also among the lowest 1o-percent for growth in English and math, according to a spokeswoman for the State Education Department.

At last week’s school board meeting, after an inquiry was made by board member Helen Lounsbury, Mundell said that the district is in good standing but has been labeled under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA, as potentially a target school for intervention next year in the category of special education.

The superintendent attributed the district's designation under ESSA to students not having a “growth score” last year due to a higher rate of students (particularly special-education students) not taking required tests in prior years, he said.

“When I arrived here there was a 40-percent opt-out rate … ,” said Mundell. “This year we had a seven-percent not-testing rate; not all of them were refusals, some were just absent from school … .”

According to statistics from the State Education Department, the percentage of BKW students refusing to take state-required tests has dropped dramatically from 35 and 39 percent refusing in 2015, to percentiles in the 20s in 2016 and 2017, to a low last year.

In 2018, 7.2-percent of students in grades three through eight eligible for English testing refused to participate; 6.1-percent of eligible students refused to participate in testing for math.

“So, we’ve worked very hard this year,” Mundell continued. “Our special education staff and our general education staff has worked with Carrie DuBois, a consultant from TASC, RSE-TASC, which is a consultancy organization through BOCES and was been contracted by State Ed. to work with districts,” he said, referring to the Regional Special Education Technical Assistance Support Center.

According to a December school board presentation by Susan Sloma, BKW’s director of Pupil Personnel Services, over 15 percent of the district’s students have a disability. With enrollment of 762, BKW has 118 students with disabilities — 44 have learning disabilities, 27 have health impairments, 21 have speech and language impairments, 11 have multiple disabilities, eight are on the autism spectrum, and seven have emotional disturbances.

Sloma said at the December meeting that DuBois has helped the district come up with a quality improvement plan for all students with disabilities.

According to data from the State Education Department, statewide in 2018, based on test results, 13.8 percent of students with disabilities were proficient in English and 14.6 percent were proficient in math.

At BKW in 2018, forty-one students with disabilities were tested in English and 4 of them, or 10 percent, were proficient. In math, 39 BKW students with disabilities were tested and two of them, or 5 percent, were proficient.

Mundell told The Enterprise on Wednesday that exam proficiency for students with disabilities was addressed as a statewide issue by Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at a recent conference.

He said that about three years ago at BKW, a spike in drop-out rates for students with disabilities also affected the district’s graduation rates. This year, the school brought in DuBois to help correct this; she observed staff and provided feedback, he said.

“However, this data has already been corrected,” said Mundell. He said that the 10-percent proficiency for students with disabilities is a jump from 1-percent proficiency before, and more students with disabilities were proficient than ever before.

He also said that the number of students with disabilities in the school is “an appropriate figure statewide” and has decreased over time.

Mundell said that a “major step forward” in special education is having these students taking state exams. He believes that proficiency has been helped in part by the fact that all students with disabilities in grades three through eight are learning in the classroom with peers in their grade level.

He also said that the school is using the Orton-Gillingham reading program to help students with disabilities build literacy skills to help with testing.

“We’re leaders in inclusive education now,” said the superintendent.

Mundell asked, “Do we want to get performance?” He answered himself, “Yes, but we also want to recognize that students are not just a test score.”

Pre-K program

A year into a full-day pre-kindergarten at BKW, pre-kindergarten teacher Katlyn Prescott gave a presentation to the school board on the program, including what the students are learning and how the school has scheduled both full-day and half-day programs.

“This is as good as it gets,” said Lounsbury, as the presentation began.

Following the presentation there were concerns expressed about the limited number of slots to register for the program, but registration has been increased for the upcoming year.

Prescott’s presentation included photos and videos of the students, including getting lunch in the cafeteria “like all the other grades in the building” where some could barely reach the top of the bar where they’re served.

Lessons include social skills, numbers, and name recognition. Some activities include “centers” in which students decide on their own to move from one station to another for different activities.

Students who stay only for the morning leave at lunchtime. Prescott said that students who arrive in the afternoon are caught up on activities from the morning while full-day students nap.

Parent volunteers play a role in the classroom, said Prescott.

Retired BKW teacher Molly Tiffany praised the new full-day program and thanked Lounsbury for the idea and the rest of the board members for their support. She said that her granddaughter is excited to go to school to attend the program and even to ride the bus, which students over age 4 are allowed to ride.

Tiffany also noted that research from Duke University has found early education influences children up to grade eight.

Tiffany asked that the district “think of a creative idea” about scheduling, since children are waitlisted for the program. Knox resident Ed Ackroyd suggested that the school provide educational information to families in the district who could not get into the program, and to also check on them.

Registration for the next school year was held on Feb. 26 and 27. Those who could not be registered were placed into a lottery on March 1, and the school also places students on a waitlist.

District clerk Anne Farnam later told The Enterprise that the program currently has 16 full-time students and eight half-time students, with four students who come for the morning, and four who come in the afternoon. All the spots in the program for this past year were filled.

Mundell said on Wednesday that the school now has 36 students registered for the upcoming school-year and is considering opening another classroom for the program.

“We’re envisioning having two sections of 18,” he said.

The lottery and waitlist are not necessary this year because the school is now taking in more students, said Mundell.

The district’s half-day pre-kindergarten program began in 2007, offering two half-day sessions for a dozen students in the morning and a dozen in the afternoon.

Board budget

At the meeting, Mundell reviewed what he described as the driving forces for the 2019-20 district budget.

While the governor has issued his draft of the state budget with state aid to school districts, Mundell expressed concern about what the state aid would look like for BKW under the budget issued by state legislators following election victories last fall giving a Democratic majority in the State Senate for the first time in years.

“The power has shifted to downstate Democrats,” said the superintendent. “We’re a fairly rural and Republican district.” Voter enrollment in the Hilltowns overwhelmingly favors Democrats although Donald Trump carried the rural towns in the last presidential election and the GOP made inroads in the most recent local elections.

“We are told there’s no money in Albany this year,” Mundell later added.

Last year, Mundell said that the state budget gave the district about $10 million in aid, or a little under half of the district’s anticipated expenses.

Costs have increased for staff salaries, insurance, and the district’s contract with BOCES, said Mundell, and BKW will also have to stay under the state-set levy limit. The district will also see increased costs in new equipment but will ultimately save money on repairs, he said.

BKW will use $150,000 from its transportation reserves for the district’s bus proposition, which will replace the fleet every seven years rather than every 10 years in order to double the price of selling buses.

“It’s almost a wash,” said district business manager Stacy King-McElhiney.

Other business

In addition, the board also:

— Heard from Albany County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Lee Bormann about how the first year of the sheriff’s school resource officer program has gone. The program placed a deputy in each of three school districts — BKW, Voorheesville, and Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk — and also established new emergency radios in the school and on school buses;

— Heard from Mundell on the status of the district’s capital project. He expects the state to approve state aid for the project soon, after which the district will put out bids for contractors and then begin construction in different phases in order to allow classes to continue in the buildings. The project is to be completed by 2020. Mundell presented renderings of what the two schools and a new courtyard will look like following the renovations;

— Heard from Mundell that the BKW district-wide safety plan will be posted online for 30 days before a public hearing. Building plans are more detailed but kept confidential, he said;

— Approved the job description for secretary to the superintendent;

— Changed the appointment of Emily DeNovio from a special-education teacher to a long-term substitute, pending her final certification, with retroactive pay, after Lounsbury expressed concerns about her being appointed before being certified; and

— Conducted first and second readings of various board policies.

More Hilltowns News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.