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.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mixed reviews for special ed in Amherst

I'm posting two links to an article in today's Gazette about the evaluation of special education in Amherst. The special education evaluation was briefly presented at the most recent Regional SC meeting, but there will be a longer discussion of this evaluation at a future meeting. I was struck (and commented at the time) that this evaluation, while relatively thorough, didn't include virtually any examination of our special education costs (which I believe was asked to be completed by the SC last spring), and in particular whether our staffing levels were appropriate in terms of our population. I am struck that the Amherst Regional schools employ four special education administrators (all making over $95,000), which seems odd to me since we employ (as of last year) not a single person whose job is to focus on curriculum/evaluation/instruction (and even now, we have only one person -- the Curriculum Director). I have met and talked with many parents who are involved in special education in Amherst, and, as noted in this article, satisfaction is not particularly high, which concerns me. I believe we need to set developing recommendations for improving special education in Amherst a high priority for the upcoming year. Here are the two links:, and

One more note: there is also a front page article stating that the DA has NOT issued the expected ruling on blogs, but has sent the concerns raised by School Committee chairs to the Attorney General. Here is that link:


Anonymous said...

CS said:
I am struck that the Amherst Regional schools employ four special education administrators (all making over $95,000), which seems odd to me since we employ (as of last year) not a single person whose job is to focus on curriculum/evaluation/instruction (and even now, we have only one person -- the Curriculum Director).

I am guessing the number of admins is due to the fact that SPED is heavily mandated with lots of bureaucracy and legal angles, but does any law mandate a curriculum director?

I do see a need for one admin each for MS, HS and ES. The paperwork is unbelievable, the meeting load insane.

And did you notice that eval & progress reporting was one of the SPED parental concerns, too?

mariac said...

as a sped parent, I'm happy this is finally coming out in print. the lack of parent-teacher communication and IEP's that are not implemented are insane. we've been fighting for everything for the past 5 yrs and my child is only in the 2nd grade. there is no transparency between the staff and families. it's like being part of a circle that you should be allowed in, but are always kept at arm's length. we have a huge file and paper trail, and it's crazy it has to be this way.

Ed said...

I do see a need for one admin each for MS, HS and ES. The paperwork is unbelievable, the meeting load insane.

Only if you are ineffective, obstinate and obtuse.

Most parents love their children and only want the best for the child -- and while you may have to actually treat the parents like adults and explain the rationale for your beliefs, if you truly have the child's best interests at heart, they eventually will see that.

If, in fact, you truly do. And I do wonder how much of SPED is simply "don't kill the job" -- holding children hostage for more SPED dollars...

And did you notice that eval & progress reporting was one of the SPED parental concerns, too?

It is called "least restrictive environment" and shouldn't the teachers who actually KNOW the child be the ones doing this?

Ed said...

The DA has NOT issued the expected ruling on blogs, but has sent the concerns raised by School Committee chairs to the Attorney General.

I am going to say this: if they rule against Catherine, that means that anyone who is a town meeting member can't have a blog either....

Furthermore, no UMass employee (including faculty) can have a blog, either.

Do you children have any idea of what you are doing here, and what the future consequences could be?????

Do you have any idea what a right-wing governor could do with the precedents that you are trying to get established here???

Or what George Bush could have????

Ed said...

In a sidebar, Kristen wrote "more professional development is needed to help general education teachers and special education specialists collaborate on co-teaching strategies. Common expectations should be formed for in-class co-teaching."

What?!? Common expectations don't exist between the classroom teacher and the para's coming into the classroom?!?!?!?!?!?!

Let me put it this way: you come into my classroom (and it is MY classroom when I am teaching), we had very much better be on the same page on what we are going to be doing. How do these classroom teachers function without "common expectations [for] in class teaching"?!?

Folks, this is on the level of which side of the road do we drive on -- it doesn't matter as long as everyone agrees which side it is. There are two SAE ("English") and three Metric thread patterns, it really doesn't matter which one you use as long as it is consistent.

This is mismanagement. If the people of Amherst couldn't all agree on which side of the street we would drive on, after about the 500th head-on collision, we would fire the police chief. We have FOUR SPED administrators as well as all kinds of other administrators and we STILL don't have agreement between the teachers and the SPED folk as to what is going in the classroom?

If this is true, this is a major problem - one that extends far beyond the SPED issue.

If you are going to teach effectively, particularly at the middle school level, you need to first have control of your classroom. And before you can get that, you first need to have some idea as to what is going on in your classroom. Otherwise, you have bedlam...

Does political correctness preclude us from mentioning this fact? And while meritorious, maybe we ought to use some of our professional development days to sort out what page we all are on -- Oh, wait, the teachers decided not to have professional development days so they could get a pay raise...


Ed said...

Hispanic children make up 22 percent of special education students, although they represent 14 percent of the student body.

The 14% statistic is irrelevant. The question you want to ask is what percentage of the so-called "at risk" cohort of students is Hispanic? For example, what percentage of the free/reduced lunch cadre is Hispanic?

We have known for half a century that there is a relationship between poverty and poor educational outcome for children. We can argue why, and part of it is that parents of means can provide things for their children, but you will find more SPED issues amongst a low-income cadre of children.

Show the percentage of minority children in the free/reduced lunch program relative to the SPED population before you start crying "racism" if you want any credibility.

(And the real issue everywhere else is that minority populations (and female students) are underserved by SPED programs! That racism causes districts NOT to provide SPED services, that girls are ignored because they quietly sit in the back and look out the window.)

The school district's legal budget in 2009 was $105,618. Per pupil, the district had $61.69 to spend on legal matters. The state average that year was $17.67 per pupil, according to the DOE.

We are spending more than THREE TIMES state average on lawyers representing us against parents? Can anyone explain why?

With all the social justice in town, with all the alternative dispute resolution folk, we still need to spend more than three times the state average in lawsuits against parents?

Am I missing something here???

Anonymous said...

I'm not a special education professional - I just have a real-life scenario to share regarding sped legal expenses.

I know someone (not in Amherst) who has a pre-K child with moderate autism. The parents of this child have hired a personal consultant who helps them get as much as they can from the school district in regard to sped services for their child. The parents have their sights set on a particular RESIDENTIAL school that I am assuming costs A LOT. School districts are required to provide services for children with autism until the child is 21 or 22 years old. So, I can understand why a school district may have to spend a significant amount of money fighting parents if the school feels they can provide in-district services but that doesn't seem good enough for the parents. It's worth fighting against providing 18-19 years of private residential schooling when the district can provide adequate services. And I appreciate that ARPS fights when they know they can provide services in-district.

Anonymous said...

That whole SPED thing must be a nightmare for school districts to deal with. It doesn't feel fair that the district is afraid they're going to get sued. It's not fair that it feels like the SPED budget is sinking the ship. It feels like the public schools can't provide a regular education because of all the mandated SPED programs. It seems like there needs to be a change.

Anonymous said...

How about the whole SPED thing being a nightmare for the parents? Amherst has not followed through regarding service grids for families (it is legally binding to do so once it is agreed upon and placed in the IEP) and that leaves parents feeling like they have 2 choices. To continue to put pressure on the system that is failing their child, or to sue the district. It's exhausting, and parents of typical kids have no idea how ugly the system can be. The SPED budget isn't sinking the ship. It's separate from the regular budget. Too bad this article didn't come out during the school year so there could be real dialogue regarding SPED services and the families that use them. I'd love to have a parent of a child without special needs walk in my shoes for a month, and see how "easy" it really is regarding the school system.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Anon 7:16.

Anonymous said...

The SPED money is still coming out of the school's entire budget. Don't the parents of regular kids wish they could sue the school district for not having a rigorous curriculum.

Anonymous said...

I think what pits one parent against another is the continual rounds of cuts to the regular education program. No one wants to suspiciously look at other programs but it's hard not to.

Also, how would the regular education programs looks in our elementary schools if Marks Meadow had been closed sooner and other efficiences implemented sooner?

Kate said...

To Anonymous July 7, 2010 7:58 AM:

What parents of children receiving special education services have the right to do is to sue the school for not providing a free, appropriate public education. It's not a very high standard the school has to meet, and very different than the concerns that many parents of children in regular education have about a rigorous education.

Anonymous said...

One way in which I believe we can effect substantial financial savings in the Special Education budget is with more rational development of IEPs.  The current SPED procedure is staff intensive, feeds adversarial relations, and leads to poor student outcomes. 

Today in Amherst, at the beginning of each IEP meeting, administrators are compelled to read aloud the District’s “Norms of Behavior,” basically a warning to parents that administrators will halt the meeting if there is too much disagreement. Hence, even before IEP meetings begin, administrators involved anticipate conflict. Perhaps nothing else illustrates the malaise of our system more than this ritual.

The human and financial costs of the current system are unsustainable.  Yet defusing the implicit hostility is less complex than it appears.  A paradigm shift in the direction of Special Education will lead to significant cost savings, better student outcomes, and a more harmonious collaboration between the Special Education Department and families.  

Kindly consider the following:

1)   Encouraging parents to speak directly with service providers (teachers)  outside of Team Meetings on a clearly defined time-limited basis to assist in the development of IEP goals and benchmarks would integrate the whole team in support of the student.  More active parents, well versed in the process, will benefit from the connection to school staff, and provide invaluable assistance to overtaxed professionals.  Those currently less engaged may be inspired to better support staff in educating their child, leading to improved outcomes.

2)  Encouraging parents to help write IEP goals in concert with professionals will facilitate IEP meetings and shorten them.  When largely completed IEP language is brought to a meeting, there is little reason for “debate” or acerbic exchanges and IEP meetings will be short and productive.

Under the current regime,  IEP meetings are tremendous consumers of financial resources.  When my child’s team meets there are often 8 or 9 professionals around the table costing the district several hundred dollars per hour and denying other students staff resources that they need.  And while it is of critical importance that a student’s program is generalized over the range of disciplines and that the staff be coordinated, the method being used to do so in Amherst is arbitrary, wasteful, and ineffective.  [My guess is that were you to have private meetings with staff - outside of the earshot of SPED Administrators - you might find agreement about the sense of waste and the need for creative thought to change the system.]

3) Creating an environment of transparency where families feel engaged with the District will foster goodwill and support for the process of IEP development.  Such an environment will also support students and families who are currently getting crushed by the process.  An environment where everyone engages becomes positive.  While it is true that there will be disagreements, such events are less likely to be intractable in an environment where the parties fundamentally believe that their interlocutors are acting in good faith.  In contrast, the current system invites mistrust, acrimony, and repeated recitation of the  “Behavioral Norms.”


Anonymous said...

To Anon. July 13, 2010 5:45 AM

If the administration is reading this Norms of Behavior code of conduct before the meeting even starts, I'm sure there is a reason, and obviously they've had problems in the past and have had to institute this procedure. I'm sure they hate it as much as the parents. This stuff doesn't just happen in a vacuum.

Anonymous said...

You have huge intellectual resources in Amherst in the families who have chosen to live here for the educational opportunities. - why not use them ? In this time of crises we can ill afford shutting out the resources these families can bring to bear on a seemingly intractable problem. 

4)  In the event that a disagreement requires additional effort, I would encourage implementation of a set policy requiring the SPED direction to act incrementally - and again in a transparent manner - to relieve conflict.  That looks like:
• requiring administrators to take advantage of free state resources to provide impartial facilitation of Team Meetings, and;
•  requiring administrators meet with free state mediators to help work out differences before legal counsel is engaged.

At no time, in my view, should legal strategies obscure the view of the end goal - a goal which I believe the therapeutic and educational staff and parents share - to educate children to the best of their ability.  At the moment such a goal is subject to a lawyer’s opinion, we have all lost (but the children most of all).

The Special Education department needs a director capable of thinking outside of the box, of building consensus rather than a legal strategy, of inviting families to work with the District to reform a system that is sucking us dry and leaving our most vulnerable children in precarious circumstances.  The current level of mistrust is so pervasive that many parents I know are afraid of retribution should they voice a disagreement with SPED administrators.  What that says to me is that we have imperiled those most susceptible to abuse. 

Hence the paradigm shift I describe is not only a financial necessity, but a moral one.

Anonymous said...

To Anon. July 14, 2010 8:05 AM

As soon as parents of SPED children quit threatening lawsuits against the school district for services they feel entitled to, then the legal stuff can go away. Until then, the legal stuff has to stand. How else can the school and tax payers of the town protect themselves?

Anonymous said...

To Anon July 16 542AM

You make it sound like the parents of SPED kids are asking for some kind of gold plated education for their child. For the most part, that is an incorrect assumption. They are fighting to get what the regular ed parents take for granted - simply an education. Until you have a SPED child, you have no idea what a painful, exhausting process it is to get just a basic education for your child. It's the old "Until you've walked a day in my shoes" idea.

Anonymous said...

I am not the previous poster but from my perspective, my regular education kids aren't even getting "simply an education." Or at least not a full education in all basic subjects. Their knowledge and experience with both math and science are abysmal and by the end of elementary school, they still have not been taught who the founding fathers of our country are, have any idea what the Bill of Rights are, or even know the Pledge of Allegiance! These things, I believe, should be part of a basic elementary educational experience in the U.S.

Michael Jacques said...

I don't have time to read the report but does it mention the money spent per pupil compared to the state average? I am wondering if (for the 3.7% more students we graduate) we spend more or less than the state average.

The parent satisfaction part of the survey is also concerning. Are there others SPED surveys in other districts that are comparable that show parent satisfaction?

Bev said...

In 2005 The Amherst School District retracted its long-standing policy--which was also a state-wide policy--of audiotaping Sped Team meetings and allowing parents to do the same. Former superintendent Hochman and Maria Geryk stated that cassettes took up too much storage space. (Parents were not even given the courtesy of being told of this policy change before they came to their next meeting, with their tape recorders in hand as usual.) Tape recordings kept people honest and civil. If a "you-said/I-said" scenario came up at a later date, the tape was there to solve the dispute. It is no coincidence that relations between sped administrators and parents began to deteriorate during this time. The lack of taping gave administrators the opportunity to make duplicitous statements, and it began our long decent into the current lack of transparency which parents are so unhappy about. With the advent of CDs, I wonder if storage space could be found now? It seems to me that if we reinstated the decades-long policy of tape recording meetings it would smoothe out some of the bad blood between parents and administrators, and perhaps restore respect and dignity to the Team process while exonerating members of the administration, if any, who have been accused of being bullies.

Naomi said...

To Anonymous, July 14: It is usually not the parents of special needs children who threaten litigation; it is the school district. Please reread the survey results. Most parents cannot afford the $200.00 to $300.00 dollar-an-hour lawyer's fee, plus all the additional costs of expert witnesses and travel, loss of work-time, etc. that are incurred by a hearing. Amherst CAN afford this, and they use this wealth to intimidate families. That is why there are so few lawsuits against the Amherst district.

Bob said...

Does anyone wonder if Amherst's persistent turnovers of superintendents and principals have anything to do with our very stable, long-term cluster of highly paid sped administrators?

Anonymous said...

After being on the school committee for as long as you have Ms. S. I do not understand how you claim to be 'struck' by learning how many administrators the schools employ for special education. The money that the schools collect from the state to employ these administrators is astronomical in comparison to 'regular' education and yet the services the sped students are entitled to have to be fought for tooth and nail and sometimes even then they are not received. To pit parents of sped students against parents of regular ed students against each other is just a tactic meant to take up energies that should be used to investigate why and how this is happening here and for sooo long!

William said...

It doesn't surprise me that Ms. S was "struck" by the large number of highly paid Special Education administrators. I don't mean to single her out because I do not think ANY member of the school committee understands special education. The school committee has always passed special ed questions over to sped administrators, taking their word for everything, thus continueing to allow the foxes to watch the henhouse. When the school committee says "all students" they are insincere because they do not include disabled students. The SC does not represent the most vulnerable, at-risk children. There is a huge divide. That being said, I do believe that Ms. S is trying harder than any other SC member to uncover the reasons why special education in Amherst is a money pit that does not give good educational returns.