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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 26, 2010
GCSD board wants to know:
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND The school board here will be listening to the community to decide how it should proceed in changing Guilderland’s special-education programs, if at all.
The district hired, for $40,000, Futures Education, based in Springfield, Mass., to evaluate its programs for students with disabilities and to make recommendations.
The final report, presented to the district last month, says that programs and organizational structure are “inexorably intertwined with district finances.”
It recommends re-organizing the administrative staff centralizing the committee admitting students to special-education programs and heading the process with a single point person and also reconfiguring the teaching staff cutting back on the speech pathologists, the occupational therapists, and the teaching assistants in conjunction with a “bring back” and “keep in” initiative, bringing some out-of-district students back to Guilderland.
This “will result in substantive savings while maintaining the district’s well-deserved track record for educational excellence,” the report says.
Guilderland’s special-education population has grown 9 percent in the last five years, the report says, while the growth at similar districts has been 2.5 percent; the report speculates this may be because Guilderland lacks “precise quantitative parameters.”
In reviewing the report, Guilderland’s interim superintendent, Michael Marcelle, focused on four areas: organization of services, delivery of services, finances, and entry and exit criteria.
“We would like to begin the process of developing a multi-year plan to improve services for our children,” Marcelle told the school board last week.
Board President Richard Weisz felt strongly, and several other board members agreed, that the original ad hoc committee that looked at special education in Guilderland should have a chance to review the report.
Weisz stressed the need for shared decision-making and the need to involve the community “to figure out if the proposal makes sense.”
He said the report raises “two big issues” that would mean drastic change for Guilderland adopting district-wide rather than site-based management, and setting consistent criteria to allow students to be released from special services.
“While we’re very good at identifying and inviting students into the program, we’re not good at saying, you’ve achieved,” Weisz stated.
If the community doesn’t agree with the report, there’s no point in going forward, he said.
He suggested allowing the original committee until September to respond to the report.
Board member Denise Eisele, who served on the ad hoc committee and is the mother of some children who use special-education services, said, “I personally think this district is extremely generous with its special-education services.”
Eisele also said that she had heard from parents of gifted children that they were concerned about the effects of the co-teaching model the district has started using, and which the report encourages. In a co-teaching model, special-education teachers work with regular teachers in classrooms where children with special needs are clustered.
“All of those are striking fear in the hearts of regular education parents,” said Eisele.
Board member Barbara Fraterrigo said she’d like to hear from more special-education staff. “So few people really contributed to the study,” she said.
The consultants from Futures Education met with 82 people, including administrators, teachers, and teaching assistants, as well as surveying parents of special-education students.
Board member Colleen O’Connell responded that staff providing services or parents receiving services shouldn’t be making the decisions about those services. “People are not really inclined to cut their own positions,” she said.
“Who’s going to drive this process?’ asked board member Emilio Genzano.
“Ultimately, the board,” responded Weisz.
The goal is to have reached agreement before Feb. 15 so that changes can be included in the budget for 2011-12.
For a five-year plan, said board member Allan Simpson, “We have to make sure we have a timeline with some deadlines.”
“I will resurrect the ad hoc committee,” Marcelle told the board.
“Change ‘resurrect’ to ‘revitalize,’” concluded Eisele. “I feel a little dead over here.”
The board had gotten a preview of the report in June from Edward Shafer, the senior education consultant at Futures Education. “You spend two-and-a-half times as much on special-education students as general-education students,” Shaffer told the board. (For the full story on his presentation, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for June 17, 2010.)
Shafer’s 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.”
The 50-page report focuses on three aspects of special education at Guilderland organizational structure, support, and procedures; program review; and finances.
Procedures and structure
Key findings in the first section include this: “Although there is general, and growing, culture of acceptance that these are ‘our students,’ there are some lingering attitudes across the district of ‘we don’t want those (special education) students’ within some schools,” and goes on to say some staff thought younger teachers were generally more welcoming of inclusion.
There is also a belief that “‘more vocal’ parents of which there are apparently many within the district” may get more services.
The report discusses several barriers to discharging students from services:
The dual concepts of “free appropriate public education” and “least restrictive environment” are “not yet part and parcel” district-wide of all individualized education plans;
Parents don’t understand that the “essence” of school-based services is to promote educational achievement rather than to provide “in-house” clinical services, “and therefore the erroneous belief that ‘more is better’ prevails…Consequently, the logical reaction is that dischrge of, or decrease in, services is viewed as a ‘take away’ and not as a reason to celebrate a student’s accomplishments”;
The standard of “required” as opposed to “beneficial” need of related services appears to be poorly understood and unevenly conveyed to parents throughout the district.
Although the report says that special-education staff had only positive things to say about administrators, the report says reducing the number of administrators “appears to be a possible option for next year and is reasonable,” and it also asserts the current structure “may be inadvertently reinforcing the distinction between special education and regular education rather than reducing it.”
The report states it is “striking” how many students receive social work support via direct services, and speculates that students may be receiving speech services that may not need to be.
“Given the inherent subjectivity and lack of systematic processes across all service providers disciplines,” says the report, “it appears that the omnipresent, and ambiguous, ‘clinical judgment’ remains a featured determining factor of eligibility for many services.”
The report calls the district’s 114 paraprofessionals “an inordinately high number,” and states that some parents and general-education teachers expect “that any time a student with a disability is in a general education core course, an assistant is needed.”
The reports says, “Paraprofessional supports may be said to be largely ineffective, to the extent that they are: being frequently assigned to further appease parents, not sufficiently being monitored, and inconsistently trained to ensure student independence….”
The report also says that having so many students in out-of-district and private placements, aside from the expense, sacrifices least-restrictive-environment opportunities.
The report’s financial analysis focuses primarily on out-of-district placements and personnel costs.
“It is notable that, when considered globally,” the report says, “the district is doing quite well in comparison to other districts within the state: Instructional expenditures devoted to special education have increased 25 percent in the past five years as compared to a 38-percent increase in similar schools in that same time period.” For each special-education student, on average, Guilderland spends about two-thirds $20,000 as opposed to $30,000 of what similar districts spend.
While Guilderland, with one special-education teacher for every 18.3 students, is not as highly staffed as other districts, the report says it is over staffed with others and recommends cutting teaching assistants to 70, speech pathologists to nine, occupational therapists to two with 2.2 assistants, social workers to five, and psychologists to seven.
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, the report says.
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, the report says, perhaps because of the proximity, that the “default” is to send students to programs run by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
Costs would be reduced by operating programs in-house but then the district would lose the revenue it gets by renting rooms to BOCES, the report says.
“With increasingly diminishing resources,” the report says, “it is important to weigh the level of services being provided to all students to ensure everyone has an appropriate (not necessarily the best or ideal) program within the resources available.”