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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 17, 2010

Hired experts recommend changes for special education

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — “There are good things happening but you can be better,” Edward Shafer told the Guilderland School Board last week.

Shafer is the senior education consultant for Futures Education, based in Springfield, Mass., which the district hired for $40,000 to evaluate its special education program.

“Good is the enemy of great,” he said, quoting author Jim Collins. “When you think you’re good, it can prevent you from being great.”

The consultants met with 82 people including administrators, teachers, and teaching assistants, as well as surveying parents of special-education students. A full report is to be produced by July. It will be evaluated by a committee that will make recommendations to the board.

“You spend two-and-a-half times as much on special-education students as general-education students,” said Shafer.

He also pointed out that students with disabilities taking the Regents exam in English failed to make adequate yearly progress, as set up by the state, and the graduation rate for students with disabilities is low — 59 percent, in marked contrast with other, similar schools.

Shafer recommended weaving tighter relationships between special education and general education, bringing back some students who are now in out-of-district programs, intervening earlier and discharging from special programs students who succeed, as well as cutting back on staff. He also recommended centralizing the committee admitting students to special-education programs, and heading the process with a single “point person.”

“That’s not our philosophy,” objected board member Colleen O’Connell. “We don’t have K through 12 supervisors…We have site-based supervisors.”

When board members raised this and other objections and questions, the board’s president, Richard Weisz, stressed that it would be up to a committee to “grind out” a plan.

The meeting had opened with comments from the father of a third-grader with Tourette’s, a neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by tics. Paul Bashant told the board that, since his son had been put in a special-education cluster, he had had a tough year, including being choked and punched.

“My son said, ‘Dad, it’s not the teachers; it’s the kids,’” said Bashant. 

“The worst was…he stopped liking school,” said Bashant. He said he thought teachers were being asked to do too much and there weren’t enough resources.

He also said that his daughter, a native speaker of English who is gifted, struggled at school; she had been placed in a class with  a cluster of students learning English as a second language. He said it looked like the district practiced segregation the way the classes are divided.

His voice cracking with emotion, Bashant said that the school’s partnership with parents was an important part of education and, “We felt shut out of the process.”

Shafer’s report to the board focused on three aspects of special-education at Guilderland — organizational structure, support and procedures; program review; and financial considerations.


When it comes to organizational structure, among the strengths of the program, Shafer said, were a high degree of confidence among both educators and parents for quality education, staff perception of leadership as being supportive and responsive, and a generally positive “culture” of celebration when students are discharged from special- education services.

Also, he said, while there is a “unified ‘culture’ of student ownership at the elementary schools and an emerging ‘culture’ at the middle school, whereby special and regular educators are working together for the betterment of all students,” there are concerns that is not the case at the high school.

However, Shafer said, there is a “disconnect” between what is happening in the field and how it is being recorded with current software. There are also concerns among some staff of the effects of next year’s cuts of teaching assistants. This year’s 114 teaching assistants are being reduced to 65 next year. Futures Education recommends about 70.

Another challenge, Shafer said, is the perception that special-education leadership goes beyond the required “free appropriate public education” especially for more vocal parents and advocates, likely because of a disjointed and decentralized committee on special education.

Shafer recommended intensive professional development to ensure consistency, reorganizing the special-education department with a single “point person, and changing software programs and adding technical support.

The goal, Shafer said, is to “weave tighter relationships between special-education and general education.”

The recommended plan calls for principals to have more responsibility for special education, and to consolidate the elementary school chairs of the committees on special education — there is currently one at each of the five schools — into one job.

The entire process would be more centralized with a single, central committee doing the initial referrals and evaluating those that require significant modification; one person would oversee the process for a uniform approach.


Guilderland offers a broad continuum of services from self-contained classrooms to total inclusion of students in regular classrooms, the consultants found, where the students with special needs are, in every sense, part of the fabric of the schools.

Other program strengths include growing use of “response to intervention” or RTI, in which the school intervenes early to prevent entrance to special education; an understanding of an educational rather than clinical model of service delivery; a clinical philosophy of “front loading” where younger students receive more intense therapy; effective use of push-in models where therapists visit classrooms; and clustering in the elementary schools to support shared teaching by special-education and regular classroom teachers.

However, Shafer said, criteria admitting students to and discharging them from special-education programs need to be stronger and more universally applied.

He also said that more speech and language pathologists need to work in classrooms as opposed to following a “pull-out model.”

Currently, Shafer said, paraprofessionals are assigned unsystematically and there is a belief among staff members and parents that “more is better.”

“The goal is to make students as independent as possible,” he said, and sometimes too much help gets in the way of that goal.

He also said, “the psychologists you have now are all tied up in assessment.” Instead, they should be consulting with general-education teachers much of the time, said Shafer.

Another problem is that individualized education programs, set up for each special-needs student, “were frequently devoid of clear, quantifiable measurement parameters for academics, making monitoring of progress and decisions for discharge difficult,” said Shafer.

Some services, of therapists or social workers, are over-prescribed, he said, and sometimes such specialists are teaching skills like handwriting, which should properly be taught by a classroom teacher in consultation with an occupational therapist.

The report outlined three areas where best practices are not used: co-teaching is not yet optimal; students with handicaps isolated in self-contained classrooms don’t see general-education students enough; and there are problems with learning workshops in the high school. This problem showed up when students with disabilities taking the Regents exam in English failed to make adequate yearly progress, as set up by the state. Also, the graduation rate for students with disabilities is low — 59 percent, in sharp contrast with other, similar schools.

“This is a critical piece,” said Shafer. “We need to go up nine points to be in a safe harbor.”

He also said, “There are some real concerns bout the learning workshop model.” One student told his regular classroom teacher, talking about a learning-workshop teaching assistant, “Oh, she does my homework.”

Shafer also recommended creating a “systematic district-wide entry and exit criteria for related services and paraprofessional supports.” Finally, he said, staff should promote discharge from special-education programs or, at the very least, a reduction of services.

“You don’t discharge many kids,” said Shafer.

“So,” said Weisz, “you’re saying we’re too much like helicopter parents; we don’t let kids learn to fail.”

“That’s part of it,” answered Shafer. He said of parents, “They give us the two most important things they’ve got — their kids and their money…We need to convey to parents, there’s more to it than getting services.”

Students, rather than receiving homework help, need to learn broad skills, like literacy, he said; staff members at the high school are already talking about making changes to learning workshops and they need to be encouraged to do so.

The report recommended training staff to co-teach as well as harnessing energy and interest in restructuring learning workshops.

Shafer also recommended expanding the instructional support team and response to intervention, to provide a safety net to students who have been discharged from special programs. Finally, the report recommended creating “a more systemic mechanism for the behavioral health providers to convey information.”


Currently, Guilderland has 37 students in private programs; two of them are in unapproved schools, so the district gets no aid for them. Thirty-two are in programs offered by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services. The number of out-of-district placements exceeds those of similar schools by 70 to 100 percent, Shafer said.

Payment for these programs have jumped 30 percent in the last five years, from about $3 million to about $4 million. There is a perception, Shafer said, perhaps because of the proximity, that the “default” is to send students to BOCES programs.

Also, instructional expenditures have increased 25 percent in the last five years, compared to 38 percent increase in similar schools, and is $10,000 less per special-education spending, said Shafer, stating, “your cost on a per-pupil basis is not terribly out of line.”

He went on to say that recommendations made in a 2006 study on recouping special-education aid from the state “have been unevenly applied and uncertainty exists about the completeness of state aid claims.”

When the number of in-district special-education students is divided by the number of staff, Shafer said, “This analysis reveals a rather rich number of speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, special-education paraprofessionals, and social workers, in light of the number of psychologists and school counselors working in the district.”

He recommended:

—         A ratio of 85:1 for speech-language pathologists, cutting Guilderland’s 11 to nine;

—         A ratio of 180:1 for occupational therapists, reducing Guilderland’s 6.6 to 4.2;

—         A ratio of 10:1 for special-education paraprofessionals, cutting Guilderland’s 114 to 70.

He also recommended cutting the 11 social workers now working at Guilderland to five.

Shafer urged the board to “see if you can’t avoid continuing growth in cost and number of kids.” The concept of “keep in,” he said, is just as important as “bring back”; any initiative will take three to five years for true savings to be realized.

The initial focus should be on students who are now learning in out-of-district BOCES programs, said Shafer, stating, “It is critical to promote staff confidence in the initiative and to present in-district options as preferable and in the child’s best interest.”

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