BKW works to include 118 students with disabilities

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
“They are ours. They are BKW kids. They are not being kicked out,” says Susan Sloma of students with disabilities.

BERNE — Over 15 percent of Berne-Knox-Westerlo students have disabilities, and the rural district, following state directives, has moved in recent years to include many of them in general-education classrooms.

“Leading an inclusive school district starts with a conversation about belonging,” writes Dr. Julie Causton, an associate professor in the Inclusive and Special Education Program in the Department of Teaching and Leadership at Syracuse University.

Causton and her philosophy were frequently referenced by Susan Sloma, Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s director of Pupil Personnel Services, as she told the school board in an hour-long presentation on Monday about the district’s “journey” to inclusiveness, which began in December 2015 with state directives.

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.

The state requires school districts to educate special-needs students in the least restrictive environment. Each school has a Committee on Special Education — made up of teachers, psychologists, and social-service providers that meets with parents to map a course for each students.

“We at BKW have a commitment … to offer special-education services to level the playing field,” said Sloma.

She went over a “continuum of services,” from least to most restrictive. Least restrictive are developmental, corrective, and other related services such as speech and language pathology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling, assistive technology, and school-nurse services.

Other services that are less restrictive include a resource-room program where a teacher helps up to five students; integrated co-teaching in which no more than 12 students work with two teachers — one in special education and the other in general education — who educate all the students in a classroom.

More restrictive is a consultant-teacher model, which also involves two teachers but the special-education teacher focuses on special-needs students; special classes where students are grouped according to their needs; and most restrictive is out-of-district placement based on a student’s individual needs.

BKW places students in three major categories: state-approved private programs at the Langan School, St. Catherine’s, or Wildwood; state-approved public programs at Greenville and Niskayuna; and programs offered by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services for developmental skills and for medically fragile students, among other programs.

The state requires inclusive education that allows students to learn with their peers. Sloma cited research showing that students in inclusive classrooms do better academically than students in contained classrooms, and inclusion also supports social and emotional development, she said.

Summarizing the district’s philosophy, Sloma said, “They are ours. They are BKW kids. They are not being kicked out … They are still a part of our community.”

She also said, “We wanted to make sure all of our students had equal opportunity.” Each classified student, she said, has specially designed instruction.

“We are a small enough district,” Sloma said, “we can make those goals happen for our students.”

In the 2016-17 school year, following state directives, BKW eliminated two elementary self-contained classrooms, making in-district classes fully inclusive for kindergarten through sixth grade. Staff has been trained in co-teaching, Sloma said.

In 2017-18, specialized reading classes were added for students with disabilities.

In 2018-19, six to eight self-contained programs will be eliminated, making in-district classes fully inclusive through eighth grade.

The reaction of the parents of special-needs students was, “They couldn’t wait,” said Sloma.

Teachers’ reactions to inclusion, she said, were: “Bring ’em in.”

The State Education Department wanted to see BKW reduce its suspension and drop-out rates, and improve its success in state exams for third- through eighth-graders and on Regents exams.

Three years ago, the rate for BKW students suspended over 10 days was 3.4 percent. That was reduced to three students in 2016-17 and to zero students in 2017-18, Sloma said.

She praised school administrators for relating to students individually and for using such means as “restorative justice circles.”

BKW’s approach, Sloma said, is to “do it from the ground up.” She termed it “a collaborative effort with teachers, students, and parents.”

Similarly, the drop-out rate at BKW three years ago was 22 percent. For the past two years, no student has dropped out, Sloma said.

“We knew we needed to do more in proficiency in 3 to 8 tests for students with special needs,” Sloma said. “We’re working with a consultant.”


The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
“District goals need to be broad,” says Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board President Matthew Tedeschi, right, as superintendent Timothy Mundell listens.


State numbers

Statewide in 2018, tests in third through eighth grades showed 45.2 percent of test-takers were proficient in English; in math, 44.5 percent were proficient.

In 2018 at BKW, 56 percent of the general-education students (158 of the 281 students who took the tests) were proficient in English and 44 percent (134 of the 305 students tested) were proficient in math.

(The biggest disparity at BKW is between students who are not economically disadvantaged — 56 percent of the 177 students tested were proficient in math and 62 percent of the 191 students tested were proficient in English in 2018 — compared with students who are disadvantaged economically where 34 percent of the 131 students tested were proficient in English and 27 percent of the 128  tested were proficient in math.)

Eighteen percent of students across the state refused to take the tests in 2018, down from 19 percent the previous year. All of this data is from the State Education Department.

For students with disabilities statewide, 13.8 percent were proficient in English and 14.6 percent were proficient in math.

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

Carrie DuBois has helped the district come up with a quality improvement plan, known as a QUIP, for all students with disabilities to make sure they reach target goals set by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, Sloma said.

Questioned by board member Helen Lounsbury, Sloma estimated that, on average, two students per year successfully transition from special-education programs outside of BKW back into general-education classes at BKW.

Sloma told Lounsbury that BKW has 14 co-teaching teams at 12 grade levels. The district has 13 special-education teachers, Sloma said.

She frequently advises them, “You better get your roller skates on … They all have different assignments,” Sloma explained.

Additionally, BKW has 13 special-education aids. Just one aid is assigned to work with a single student. The others have various duties in and out of the clasroom, said Sloma, ranging from helping special-needs children on school buses to patrolling the school cafeteria.

Sloma also said, “Every general-ed teacher pretty much teaches special-ed students.”

Also in answer to questions from Lounsbury, Sloma said that student progress is monitored quarterly. She also noted that parents are active members of committee meetings.

“No one knows your child better than you,” said Sloma.

Board President Matthew Tedeschi asked where BKW ranked statewide in terms of successful inclusion. “Leading the pack?” he asked.

Sloma responded, “We have really high expectations our students will be in our community.” She also said she felt truly lucky to have such an enlightened leader and to have the support of the board.

“And the community too,” Lounsbury concluded.

Toward the end of the two-hour meeting, Kimberly Lovell, who said she herself had co-taught, spoke of the importance of inclusion for good citizenship. Inclusive programs, she said, help “our general-ed kids become understanding … of different people in society.”

Lovell also said, “I hope our teachers are not spread too thin.”

Other business

All board votes at the Dec. 17 meeting were unanimous. The board:

— Heard from Superintendent Timothy Mundell that $15.8 million in state aid — 79.2 percent for the cost of a $19.8 million capital project plus interest — had been confirmed. The district, he told The Enterprise, already had $2 million in reserve funds. The remainder, he explained will be bonded in two phases to coincide with the retiring of debt from a 2005 project and from a 2012 project “so we don’t have an impact on the taxpayers,” he said.

The capital project passed handily in November 2017; $14.8 million will go toward upgrading the elementary school and $5 million toward the secondary school;

— Learned from Mundell that the State Education Department has approved a technology plan that BKW submitted in October. The district will have access for three years to $800,000 from the statewide  $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act, which voters approved in 2014.

Each district’s Smart Schools request is reviewed by a board made up of the state’s commissioner of education, MaryEllen Elia; the chancellor of the state university system, Kristina M. Johnson; and the state’s budget director, Robert Mujica.

In 2014, Joseph Natale, an interim superintendent at BKW, said, “We couldn’t afford to do any of that stuff on our own, that’s for sure, and it would take many years to do that. We have a telephone system that hopefully can be integrated in the technology. It’s really hurting. It’s broken down several times.”

Mundell spoke on Monday of the “urgency” of getting paperwork submitted on BKW’s technology plan so it could be part of the upcoming capital project. Wiring is already part of the capital project, Mundell said, and there are thoughts of having interactive monitors in classrooms and hallways for break-out sessions;

— Approved a memorandum of agreement with the BKW Teachers’ Association, including changes regarding health-insurance benefits, personal and sick-leave provisions, and the deduction of mandatory agency fees with provisions that are no longer valid because the United States Supreme Court decided in June that union fees in the public sector violate the First Amendment.

“Even if they’re not members of the union, they get union benefits?” asked Lounsbury.

“Yes,” replied Mundell.

The BKW teachers’ contract runs from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2022. “The original MOA was passed a year-and-a-half ago,” said Mundell, and it took until now for attorneys to “clean it up”;

— Praised the curriculum handbook for 2019-20. Mundell credited the secondary-school’s guidance department and Principal Mark Pitterson and staff. Scheduling for next year’s classes will start in January, he said.

Seventeen college-level courses are available — both Advanced Placement classes, as well as credit-bearing courses from local colleges — making it possible for parents to save two years’ worth of college tuition, Mundell said. Also, students have 18 programs to choose from for technical education;

— Approved a transportation request for students to visit Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, and Montreal on Feb. 3 and 4, and also approved transportation to New York City for a student trip to Costa Rica in Central America.

Mundell said the trip to Costa Rica is run by an agency that caters to school districts, and BKW has the authority to pull out if there is an international crisis.

“It’s a well-vetted program,” said Mundell. “I have no qualms”;

— Heard reports from Mundell, board member Randy Bashwinger, Vice President Nathan Elble, and President Matthew Tedeschi whom the district sent to New York City to attend the annual convention of the New York State School Boards Association.

Bashwinger was most impressed with a class on coping with an active-shooter situation; the class was taught by a New York City SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team leader, he said.

Elble described in detail five of the classes he attended including one presented by the Genesee Valley Central School District on rural schools, where 100 percent of the students are given free breakfasts and lunches even though only half qualify under the federal program. Elble liked the grab-and-go option for breakfast rather than a cafeteria meal as at BKW. He also said the Genesee Valley district hired psychologists and counselors when teachers retired.

Elble suggested that BKW make a presentation at next year’s conference and “pound our chest.”

Tedeschi noted that many schools, like BKW, have declining enrollments. He also mentioned a grant writer who brought in $137,000. Tedeschi stressed what he’d learned about goal-setting as the BKW board is scheduled to set district goals at a Jan. 3 session. “District goals need to be broad,” he said.

Tedeschi said he also attended a session led by Robert Freedom, director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, but said Freman presented “nothing really new.”

Mundell spoke of MaryEllen Elia, the state’s education commissioner, stating it was “very refreshing the commissioner is a listener.”

He noted that the moratorium linking teachers’ and administrators’ evaluations to student test scores will be running out soon and the State Education Department is open to hearing new plans for evaluation;

— Heard from Mundell that he wants to remind the community of the district’s “chain of command.” If there are classroom problems, the teacher should be consulted first and then the principal. If there are problems with a sports team, the coach should be consulted first, and then the athletic director, Mundell said.

“Problems get solved best at the lowest point, where they begin,” he said;

— Heard from Mundell that Ralph Lembo with the Capital Region BOCES will replace Deb Rosko, who is retiring after 30 years as BKW’s food-services director. He has an extensive background in food-service management and higher education, having left a job at a “college on the Thruway,” Mundell said. He wants to be closer to home to raise his 11-year-old adoptive daughter, Mundell said;

— Approved a long list of updated board policies;

— Accepted the resignation of school psychologist Samantha Fraser, effective Jan. 18;

— Appointed Amber DellaRocco as a substitute elementary teacher, Tracey Jackson as a substitute aid, Charlie Miller as a substitute custodial worker, Bill Pasquini as a volunteer girls’ basketball coach, and gordon Ryerson as a volunteer softball coach;

— Heard praise from Lounsbury for two BKW alumni, Ed Ackroyd and his son, Darrel. Ed Ackroyd, a Vietnam veteran (and the subject of this week’s Enterprise podcast) has supported sending students to Boys’ State, and Darrel Ackroyd, a Ballston Spa teacher, is involved in a program where high school students teach elementary students in Lego construction;

— Heard, to applause, from Mundell that BKW Elementary School teacher Tammy Fisher has completed National Board Certification, which Mundell said was “parallel to going through a dissertation process; and

— Heard from Lounsbury, as the board prepares to set district goals, about BKW’s long-ago storefront program, in which parents, teachers, students, and community members worked together to transform a basement corridor of unused rooms at the elementary school into a theater, a bank, a bookstore, a post office, and more. Lounsbury, a retired BKW teacher, and Marlene Tiffany, now also retired from teaching, founded the program in the 1990s to offer students “real-life encounters with the world of work.”

Lounsbury said it exemplifies her philosophy: “Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand.”

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