My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

My Idea Regarding Special Education

As I've noted in this blog several times over the last few months, I have heard a TON from people since my election (almost a year ago) about the state of special education in our district. I've heard from parents about the special education their child is (or is not) receiving as well as community members who are concerned about the growing cost of special education. I know a fair amount about some educational issues (I have become pretty educated on different math and science curriculum over the last few years, for example), but I really don't know much about special education, and hence I just don't feel able to reach a conclusion or share my opinion about this topic in my blog. But given the amount of discussion about this topic in our community, I believe we need to better understand how special education is done in Amherst -- so that we can inform School Committee members, parents, and the community about these programs. (There is also a thoughtful posting on the Bridges program by a "guest poster" today on Alison Donta's blog:

Here is my proposal: I would like to suggest that the School Committee appoint a special task force to investigate the state of special education. This group would seek volunteers broadly, and would include parents (including those with kids who are receiving special education services and not), community members with some type of relevant background, teachers, staff, etc., and this group would be charged with creating a report on special education services in our district. In particular, this report would include a review of what we are doing (e.g., what are the goals and objectives of our particular programs), which kids we are serving (e.g., race, gender, free/reduced lunch, ELL, etc.), how kids are identified, the effectiveness of our approach (e.g., success in mainstreaming students, avoiding out of district placements, etc.), and the costs of providing such services (teachers, materials, legal fees, etc.). The group would gather some data, such as surveys from parents and teacher, information on outcomes, information on funding, and comparisons of our approach to those used in other districts. I don't have any idea what such a report would reveal, but I think creating such a committee, and gathering and publicizing such data (obviously with appropriate precautions taken regarding confidentiality) would go a long way towards helping understand what we are doing, and why, and whether there are any changes that should be made.

When Superintendent Candidate David Sklarz came to visit our district, he described a special outside review that was conducted of the Special Education services in West Hartford (you can read this review at: Although this review was expensive to conduct (I believe they paid $50,000 for the entire report, mostly in time for outside consultants to talk to parents/teachers/community members, collect data, and observe programs), he reports that it saved $200,000 a year (clearly a cost-effective use of funds). I don't know if we'd need to spend such a large sum, but it clearly suggests to me that having an outside perspective can be useful. (The Amherst College Psychology Department, for example, is undergoing an external review this spring, in which four professors from other colleges and universities are coming to meet with faculty and students this spring to learn about our curriculum and hopefully make some useful suggestions for us moving forward). This isn't about criticizing the very good things that many teachers and staff members in our schools are doing -- it is about acknowledging that we all need to be vigilant about making sure that what we are doing in all aspects of our schools, including special education, is good for kids (as assessed by empirical evidence, not just anecdote and intuition) AND is a good use of our limited resources (are we getting the most "bang for our buck").


Anonymous said...

Let's "review" all programs and see if we are getting the most bang for the buck. Let's not just single out one, shall we?

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine that anyone in the community or on the school committee is trying to "single out" any particular program to try undermine or dismantle it. Every aspect of the budget should be examined with the same scrutiny so that we can make informed and sensible decisions. Shining light on special ed expenditures may help justify the costs to people who may be jumping to uninformed conclusions about it.

MaryAnn Grim said...

I think this is a wonderful idea. I do not believe Catherine's intent is to study the SPED program to simply try to find ways to save money or even to study the SPED progrm only from a financial point of view. My take on her proposal is that she would like to examine the totality of the SPED program from top to bottom to see if there are ways we can improve upon what is alreay being done.

Catherine talks about looking at the effecitveness of our approach -one of the areas we should look at when looking at the effectiveness of approach is how good are we doing at educating our SPED students. Are we maximizing their potential or simply warehousing these kids until they graduate? Some of the SPED students will never be mainstreamed. This does not mean that the schools approach was ineffective. The question for these kids is did they receive a solid educational foundation that will serve them after they graduate and go out into the working world or continue their education.

All the programs in the school system should be looked at periodically to see if they are working optimally and to examine how they can be improved. The SC would be remiss if they did not do periodic reviews of each and every program. I can't remember the last time the SPED program was looked at in its entirety and I think the timing is just right. I hope the SC forms this special task force as soon as they are able.

Neil said...

I read Sanderson's post to mean that she proposes that the SB review our Special Ed program (because many people recognize it as an expensive part of the ed budget) for effectiveness, comparative curriculum (to other fine special ed programs) and comparative cost-benefit (with other fine special ed programs.) I'm certain we would be similarly willing to review other expensive programs on the same basis and most certainly without the hidden agenda of undermining it. The implication (Anon @ 6:01PM) is sarcastic, indirect, nonconstructive and uncalled for. If you want to make an argument about unfairly targeting programs to undermine them, do so directly. You will be heard.

Ed said...

I think this is an excellent idea - and if what is posted on the other blog is true (I am talking about locking kids into closets) then we are talking about investigating a whole lot more than just what is being spent.

MAYBE the closets are appropriate, but if they are really doing stuff like that, someone had kinda explain exactly what they are doing, the justificaiton for doing so, and the credentials of those making these decisions. It is sounding more like the mess at the old Belchertown State School to me. It is sounding like an Eighth Amendment issue (cruel & unusual punishment).

The ELL jumped out at me - ELL is NOT SPED (although it could excerbate a disability) and that point needs to be made.

And the other question I have is if the same accomidations are provided to similar children at all times? Or do those parents who bring an attorney to the meeting come out with better results?

I think this is a really good idea.

Anonymous said...

I would like to point out that there are NO attorney costs for SPED programs at Mark's Meadow. Again, one more thing that school is doing right.
So hey, let's close it because they are making it work!

Neil said...

The implication (Anon @ 9:47PM) that Marks Meadow could be closed because it is unsuccessful is silly. Failing to act on the structural fiscal deficit would be irresponsible.

ed said...

I would like to point out that there are NO attorney costs for SPED programs at Mark's Meadow. Again, one more thing that school is doing right

The former does not lead to the latter. Nor is it even really connected to it.

As much as people may love the school, the simple fact remains that (a) there aren't enough children in town to support having four elementary schools and (b) here are some unsolvable issues relative to the exterior of Mark's Meadow (traffic, etc).

I can think of three ways one could (a) be in violation of the SPED laws and (b) not being sued for it. They are as follows:

1: Make every placement regardless of need or legitimacy. Since every parent gets what he/she/it wants, there is no reason to retain counsel.
2: Have a lot of parents who don't know their rights, and perhaps come from cultures where challenging authority is not considered acceptable, if not downright dangerious. (EG China.)
3: Somehow intimidate and scare the parents into not challenging anything.

If you want to argue that Mark's Meadow is doing so well that (unlike the rest of the town, the control group) it doesn't need lawyers you have to also include educational outcmes as well. You would have a point if you could concurrently show an equal (or lower) per pupil SPED cost rate, an equal or lower percent of SPED kids, and an equal or greater parental satisfaction rate.

Now I go back to what I proposed a while back: The Mark's Meadow District Charter School. It is really quite simple, the district calculates on a per-student basis the cost of educating a child in the other 3 schools and multiplies that figure times the number of children in Marks' Meadow.

Mark's Meadow is then responsible for organizing itself and deciding how this money is spent. Additional funds are either somehow raised to maintain the current level of services and/or services/salaries are cut. The people who apparently love that school so much get to keep it, but ONLY GET THE TAXPAYER SUPPORT GIVEN TO EVERY OTHER SCHOOL IN TOWN. No more.

Right now the children attending the other three schools are subsidizing those who go to Mark's Meadow. They get less time from their librarian, their principal, even their nurse because they have the exact same number of people in those positions, but upwards of TWICE as many kids for them to work with. And this is a simple fairness issue.

The MMDCS would not be a traditional charter school in that it would still be in the district and answerable to the superintendent but the big difference from now would be that those working there would either get paid less than other teachers/paras/admins in town and/or would have to raise outside funds to bring them up to that level.

If the professors with $300K household incomes wish to pay extra, fine, but I have trouble asking folk a household income of $60K to subsidize the rich...

Anonymous said...

Looking at ALL program sounds great.
And I agree with Ed. Why not look into ELL. They seem to be increasing their staffing every year. I've heard from parents from Crocker Farm that there are children who are born in this country and attended preschool here who are placed into ELL program and stayed in the program for the whole duration of their elementary years. I don't know if they are "out" of the program for MS or HS.

Anonymous said...

Apparently my post (Anon @ 6:01 PM), struck a nerve as being "sarcastic, indirect, nonconstructive and uncalled for." By the same person who latter responded (Anon @11:33 AM)to another post as being "silly". Starting to sound like the postings on Larry K's site, sorta rough and tumble.

That being said, my post was in response to the original, i.e. -- "it is about acknowledging that we all need to be vigilant about making sure that what we are doing in all aspects of our schools, including special education,... AND is a good use of our limited resources (are we getting the most "bang for our buck")."

I was attempting, albeit in a sarcastic manner, to emphasize the "all aspects of our schools". Truthfully, I have yet to witness the same attention being paid to any other area of the school budget, as SPED. This concerns me, a former student of Social Darwinism. And maybe that is the basis for my sensitiviy to some of the "coding" I have experienced.

But, in all honesty, I am spending way too much time on the Amherst blogs. It's becoming addictive.

Ed said...

there are children who are born in this country and attended preschool here who are placed into ELL program and stayed in the program for the whole duration of their elementary years

This, too, is disturbing because the principle of ELL (as opposed to ESL) is that you spend a year or two teaching the child English at which point the child is in the regular classroom without your assistance.

Information Seeker said...

SO, I am sure Catherine will be doing a blog entry about tonight's meeting, but I must ask a question now.

Tonight we learned that the town will receive a certain amount from the Stimulus money, strictly for Title 1. The only 2 schools in Amherst that have Title 1 are Crocker Farm and Mark's Meadow.

I know this has been asked before, but I still don't feel like we have an answer. If we close Mark's Meadow and redistrict, do we lose the Title 1 funds?

If we do lose them, there goes that money from the stimulus, and we then have to find another way to service the kids who need these services.

How much will this end up costing us?

I would really like to know an actual answer to this question. No assumptions please. I feel like this is one of those very critical answers we need before proceeding with ANY to the options for any changes that are on the table.

Rick said...

I am catching up on blog reading - been busy. This is a great idea and I'd be interested in volunteering for it. Has it been proposed to the SC yet?