An update on special education, a decision to add a greenhouse management course to the high school, discussion on prioritizing capital projects and presentation of new core curriculum standards were among some of the topics that came out of Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting at the .
Below is information on the discussion regarding special education. Check Newtown Patch later for more information about the other meeting topics.
The update on special education was a continuation of a process that began after state Reps. DebraLee Hovey (R-112) and Chris Lyddy (D-106), who were contacted by parents critical of the district’s handling of special education, .
While both sides seemed to agree that the district now appeared to be heading toward addressing the problems, tensions remained in the relationship between Hovey, Lyddy and state and district officials.
The legislative duo said they were happy to see some action items coming out of a November meeting between them and district and state officials, but miffed that one particular action item appeared to tell them how to do their jobs – that the “state Department of Education or the district will tell or dictate how a legislator is charged with representing a district,” Lyddy said.
That language took legislators aback, they said.
“We don’t need to be told what our job is,” Hovey said.
The legislators said when they initially learned of the concerns from parents, they advised their constituents to bring those issues to the district. But when parents reported back that they were met with resistance, the legislators said they felt a duty to intercede.
“When we try to follow the chain of command, you can hear that we were quite frustrated,” Hovey said.
The legislators said parental complaints fell into different categories, such as communication, including during a Planning and Placement Team phase when the possibility of a learning disability is discussed, and later when the Individualized Educational Plan is created to address the disability.
Some parents also complained their students weren’t being identified with a learning disability, and instead “hidden” in a 504 program, which allows for special accommodations but doesn’t require as much accountability as an IEP, the legislators said.
Lyddy and Hovey said that out of all of the problems identified, the misclassification of students might be the hardest to identify. Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson said she and Asistant Superintendent of Schools Linda Gejda, who is responsible for overseeing the 504 program, were planning professional development programs to help teachers better identify and delivery the necessary services to children, including inviting a lawyer to talk to staff and educate them on the legal aspect of the 504 program.
"The roadblock is being able to find those kids who are hidden behind that and maybe need a different service," Robinson said. "That's an obstacle."
Mistrust of the system and a perception by parents that their complaints will result in negative ramifications to their children also must be dispelled, Hovey said.
“In Newtown that perception needs to be changed because that isn’t something we believe we are as a community,” she said.
Board of Education member John Vorous said in the past, Newtown was known for its special education program, but that it required significant funding.
“When they come to us for money for these children, my hand is going to be in the air to say ‘Put it in the budget because they need it,’” he said.
At the same time, Lyddy said much of the parental concerns had to do with communication and process breakdowns, which could be addressed with little to no additional money by staff doing a better job of empathizing and explaining things to parents.
“It’s an understanding of why this decision was made and that is all free stuff,” Lyddy said.
Director of Pupil and Personnel Services Mike Regan as well as Special Education Supervisor Eric Colon-Rodriguez later updated the education board on what the district was doing to address the concerns.
About 1,200 PPT meetings are held every year in the district, with about 20 of them this past year resulting in parents who “were not so happy” and two in which they were “very unhappy,” according to Regan.
An internal task force formed to look into the issue, headed by Sherry Earle at Newtown High School, was planning to administer a “mini-survey” to staff as well as survey parents upon leaving a PPT with the goal of looking at trends in the answers, Regan said.
Administrators also plan on holding an all-staff special education meeting this week with the 80 or so certified staff and 150 or so aides. Colon said he also will be presenting a case file to staff and asking them to look at the file with a critical eye.
Education board chairman Debbie Leidlein said the board intended to keep on top of the program and concerns raised.
“We are very serious about supporting all of the students who fit into this program,” she said.
Correction: The district holds 1,200 Planning and Placement Team meetings in a year. An earlier version of this article had an incorrect number.