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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 17, 2011

Board mulls cuts that would affect both struggling and gifted students

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Programs for students at both ends of the learning spectrum were highlighted at Tuesday’s school board meeting as the district wrestles with a projected $4 million budget gap for next year.

The board heard a much-anticipated report on special education services as well as a plea from the district’s four enrichment teachers.

To help close the budget gap, the district is considering ending enrichment programs in the elementary and middle schools for a savings of $277,900. 

During the last school year, according to the enrichment teachers, 1,800 or 80 percent of all elementary students in the Guilderland School District participated in at least one enrichment activity, while 75 percent participated in two or more. At Farnsworth Middle School, 35 percent, or 352 students, participated in at least one activity and half of those students participated in two or more activities.

“In times of peril, we often see the strength of organizations,” said Deborah Escobar, an enrichment teacher at Farnsworth Middle School who spoke for the group. She said that the 25-year-old enrichment program at Guilderland had a “profound effect on the learning climate and culture of our schools — supporting all students and encouraging them to aim for excellence and achieve at their own best level.”

She also pointed out that the per-pupil expenditure at Guilderland — at $8,326 for the 2007-08 school year, the most recent year posted — was about $2,000 less than the state average for public schools.

Later in the meeting, Superintendent Marie Wiles announced that the Center for American Progress, in a study on educational productivity, looked at how well students in districts across the country were scoring on standardized tests and compared that to how much each district spent per student (making adjustments for poverty, immigrants, and special-needs students, since those students cost more to educate); the center rated Guilderland among “the best” in the category of “Return on Educational Investment.”

Escobar told the board that federal funding might soon be tied to offering programs for all students, including the gifted. She said it would be much more costly to re-create Guilderland’s enrichment programs once they were dismantled.

A four-page handout, entitled “A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships,” which the enrichment teachers gave to board members, states that many families moved to the district because of the enrichment programs. “If the enrichment program is cut, we may lose some of our best and brightest students to private or charter schools,” it says.

Cutting the enrichment programs, it also says, means classroom teachers would “have to absorb the full impact of differentiating for students in need of a challenge,” which will be even harder as increased class sizes are expected.

The handout lists a full page of activities that would be lost, ranging from SAT preparation to public speaking and technology workshops. And it also reports on research showing that enrichment programs result in higher achievement for gifted learners as well as other students.

“Much effort and money is spent bringing students who struggle up to proficiency — but remember that the highly able deserve our attention as well; 81 percent of teachers believe that highly able students need special attention,” write the teachers.

They also write, “Our students need the opportunity to learn with their intellectual peers and to feel like they are not ‘different’ from everyone else. This is crucial in light of the fact that many higher ability students are the targets of bullies.” Additionally, they cite research that shows gifted students who are far ahead of their peers in the classroom can suffer from boredom and frustration, leading to low achievement and despondency.

Citing further research, the teachers state, “Students gain self-esteem and self-confidence from mastering work that initially seems slightly beyond their grasp.”

Special education

Wiles and Stephen Hadden, administrator for special programs, updated the board on the work of four task forces responding to a consultant’s report on special education. Last year, 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 in July, said that programs and organizational structure are “inexorably intertwined with district finances.” (For the full story on the Futures Education report, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for Aug. 26, 2010.)

Futures Education recommended 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 said.

Guilderland’s special-education population has grown 9 percent in the last five years, the report said, while the growth at similar districts has been 2.5 percent; the report speculated this might be because Guilderland lacks “precise quantitative parameters.”

Guilderland currently has about 760 students receiving special-education services, said Hadden.

In reviewing the consultant’s report, the task forces focused on four areas — entrance and exit criteria for service, organizational structure, out-of-district placements, and professional development.

The first task force found that, while criteria are in place for speech and language and for occupational and physical therapy, work is needed on criteria for social work, academic support, and adult support — when one-on-one is needed.

“We’re pretty good at getting students into a program…We’re less focused on how to get them out,” said Wiles. She also said of establishing meaningful criteria that is shared with both special education and regular-education teachers, “We’re all in this together…This is a tremendous project. We needed to probably start yesterday.”

The task force on organizational structure determined the goal should be to “develop an optimal organizational structure that supports effective and efficient delivery of pupil personnel services.”

“They’re looking at the whole shebang,” said Hadden.

The group found little empirical data regarding specific models and said comparison to “similar schools” raised more questions than answers. The task force recommended a district-wide committee to improve and identify components of a successful program.

The task force on out-of-district placements looked at six actual Guilderland students who are placed elsewhere, and determined that educating them in-house would save a total of about $30,542. About 80 students, or 10 percent of those with disabilities, are placed out of the district.

The task force also created a “decision-making template,” structured like a pyramid with services that apply broadly to many students at its base and more individualized services on top.

The task force on professional development was to plan both immediate and sustained training for implementing special-education services. The group recommended more collaborative teaching and “response to intervention,” which is underway at the elementary level and needs to be started at the secondary level. Wiles described response to intervention as “trying every strategy to make students successful in a general-education setting.”

The task force recommended workshops on Education Law, and training based on best practices for general-education teachers.

Some school board members said they were disappointed not to have specific recommendations for next year’s budget. “We just did not have enough time,” said Wiles. She also said the committee found “a lot of disconnects across the district” and it would be an “added challenge” to look at every post from top to bottom before adopting a spending plan.

“We can’t take this entire department off the table because a lot of committees have to consider a lot of things,” said board Vice President Catherine Barber. She added that it is not feasible to wait another year.

School board President Richard Weisz said he would like to see the “overall structure” by the March 1 presentation of the superintendent’s budget.

Among items relating to special education that were discussed at recent community forums as candidates for cuts were:

— Cutting a special-education administrator for a savings of $87,830. Currently there is one administrator at each level — elementary, middle, and high school — with Hadden overseeing them all. House principals at the middle school along with the building principal and Hadden would take up the duties now performed by the middle-school special education administrator;

— Cutting two social workers for a savings of $138,000. The district currently employs 11 social workers; and

— Reducing the hours of special-education teaching assistants at the high school for a savings of $52,000. This would involve redesigning the special-education self-contained alternative learning program at the high school into a co-taught program.

Several board members at Tuesday’s meeting also stressed the need to have clear entrance and exit criteria in place. Hadden said that goals are established each year for every student who is identified as having special needs and, as the state requires, students are re-evaluated every three years to see if they are eligible.

“We de-classify about 25 students every year, which is low,” Hadden said. “More students tend to come in than go out.”

He added that, since student enrollment has leveled off, entry has, too. He also said he hoped that response to intervention, putting the right supports in place, would mean fewer students would be identified for special education.

Board member Colleen O’Connell said that having clear exit and entrance criteria is critical for “not keeping children in the process forever.”

Board member Denise Eisele agreed: “It’s terribly important to have very, very clear criteria,” she said.

“Do we know the exit strategy when we first identify a student?” asked board member Allan Simpson.

“Currently, no,” replied Hadden. He said an annual goal is set. “Everything…comes down to academic performance,” said Hadden, adding that parents need time to process what they are initially being told about their child.

Simpson asked if it wouldn’t be better to be “upfront and transparent at the front end.”

Speaking of special education and regular education, board member Gloria Towle-Hilt said, “There has been a parting of the ways.” Using the language in the report and the words used by Wiles, she urged coming together to serve “our children.”

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