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SEPAC Meeting Notes 1-28-16

South Orange/Maplewood Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC)

Thursday January 28, 2016    7:30- 9:30pm

Meeting Notes

I.    Welcome/SEPAC Business

Jenny Lindstrom welcomed everyone and made a few announcements:

SEPAC made a statement at the 1/25 Board of Education meeting regarding special education budgeting and planning and the need for reliable data to make informed, responsible decisions regarding future programs and resource allocation.  The statement is posted on the SEPAC web site: http://somsepac.org/2016/02/06/sepac-statement-at-12516-board-of-education-meeting/

Ms. Lindstrom noted that the next SEPAC meeting is scheduled for March 15 (the date is incorrect on the print version of the 2015-16 District calendar).  The main presentation topic will be college preparation for students with special needs.

A Transition Planning Workshop will be held on the evening of April 26 (in lieu of the scheduled Special Ed PTO meeting) in the Columbia High School library.  Ms. Lindstrom and Rebekah Novemsky of the PTO explained that, starting at age 14, all students with IEPs must have language included in their IEP regarding their post-secondary plans; this is called ‘transition planning.’  Break out groups will discuss options for students who are college-bound, those pursuing vo-tech training, and others who will need continuing services as adults.

II.    Strategic Direction Committee Perspectives

A panel discussion about the Strategic Direction initiative was presented by four members of the Strategic Direction Committee: Elizabeth Aaron (Columbia HS Principal), David Giles (former BOE member), Annemarie Maini (current BOE member) and Marisa Stoessel (special education teacher).  The referenced the Strategic Direction document that was introduced at the Board of Education meeting on January 25th and is available on the District web site: http://www.somsd.k12.nj.us/cms/lib7/NJ01001050/Centricity/Domain/552/Strategic%20Direction%20Document3.pdf

The panelists noted that the first phase of the Strategic Planning process was when 1,600 people attended the November 10th Education Summit, followed by the collection of public feedback solicited via “Let’s Talk.”

Twenty-seven people made up the Strategic Direction Committee and they met on January 11-13, 2016 for a 3-day planning session. They spent the first day on enduring values and the new mission statement. Some comparisons were made between the old mission statement to the new one, e.g. the old statement was top-down, directive, and lacked vision for what kind of world students will be entering; the new statement is more student-centered, acknowledges that there are many different ways students can learn and flourish, and that the future is theirs to help create.

The Student Performance Statement looks beyond the basics of high school diploma requirements and challenges some of the assumptions and conventional wisdom about eligibility for graduation. For example, if students need 4 years of High School English to graduate, what if they completed 3 years plus two summer courses?  How  might they learn outside of  the  traditional classroom/teacher model?  With more flexible and creative approaches, the curriculum could become more fluid and less tied to timetables. The committee envisions opportunities for community partnerships and service learning. In any case, student performance measures will be identified and tracked to ensure mastery of subject matter. 

There are nine Strategies – or directions – that the District would like to move towards.  They are non-specific and aspirational by design, as they are meant to provide a top-line view and will be fleshed out into detailed 3-5 year action plans in the next planning phase.  For each Strategy, an Action Team will be formed of students, parent/guardians, teachers, administrators, and Board members.  Members of the Special Education community are encouraged to volunteer to serve on these teams, especially those looking at:

•    “redesigning curriculum, instruction, and assessment to support learner-centered environments,” 

•    “developing multiple supports for student to thrive in a learner-centered environment”, 

•    “maximizing community expertise and external resources to provide multiple pathways for student and professional growth and learning,” and 

•    “engaging in robust, open, ongoing and transparent communications…”

The presenters also made clear that while there are a lot of progressive, leading edge ideas in the mix, the new strategic plan will not replace all that was before and start over from scratch.  The shift to student-centered learning and multiple pathways might mean replacing “How do we make this English class work for you?” with “How will you be engaged and successful in learning English?”

One panelist suggested that the special education community be especially attuned to the objective performance measures built into the action plans – cautioning that a lack of robust benchmarking might risk a lowering of expectations for special needs students.

(Editor’s note: the District has since announced 2 community forums on the Strategic Direction: Tuesday, February 9, 2016, from 1:00-2:00pm, Wednesday, February 10, 2016, from 7:30-8:30pm in the District Meeting Room, 525 Academy St. Maplewood. An invitation to participate on Action Planning Teams will follow)

Audience Questions

Q: Are other districts doing this? 

A: There are high schools in Silicon Valley and some private schools that have approaches like this – though they are not necessarily comparable to our district. There may not be a blueprint for what we are trying to do; we seek to be innovators and leaders in our approach to teaching and learning.  

Q: How will this work, for instance where you have one teacher of 4th graders who are performing on multiple levels?  

A: Classes will still have goals that teachers and students need to meet and will continue to operate with the end goals in mind.  Maybe there will be classes with fewer students in the room.  Maybe there will be more students and more teachers in the classroom.  There will need to be changes in the construct of the classroom.

Q:  What metrics will be used to measure success?  

A:  That action plans will include measures.  Teachers are constantly measuring and assessing students – and student success will signify the success of the programs.

Q: Will Common Core Curriculum still be used?  

A:  Yes, core standards will still be met. They provide benchmarks and guidelines for student assessment.

III. Special Services Updates and 2016-2017 Plans

Director of Special Services Ella Rideau gave a summary of her 12/21/15 presentation to the Board of Education, including her department’s 2016-2017 budget recommendations, which included:  

•    8 additional staff (child study teams, teachers) because referral numbers are going up, and we need more than just self-contained and inclusion – students need more diverse services and offerings.  We aim to have students educated in their home school (the least restrictive environment) and to create in district comparable offerings to what we are currently sending students out of district to receive. 

•    ISTEP program – therapeutic wrap around program for children who need emotional support.  Currently provided at MMS – would like to expand to SOMS.

•    Executive Functioning program, which currently serves a handful of students in a pilot cohort at SOMS, and we would like to expand it and replicate it at MMS.

•    We are conducting a review of current use of paraprofessionals and how that could change with proposed diversification of program offerings.

Ms. Rideau announced staff changes/absences:

•    A Jefferson School Case manager is out until July; replacement position is posted; have part time staff providing interim coverage. Letters will be sent home to families in her caseload regarding this situation; Parents can contact Ms Rideau with questions/concerns.  

•    K-5 Special Education Supervisor is out until March; parents can contact Ms Rideau with questions/concerns.

Also underway is an effort to collect more data regarding students’ needs and to explore how some of those currently assigned to self-contained classes may be better served in a new hybrid program (less restrictive environment.)  A hybrid program might be a smaller class setting, where supports may be focused on a specific subject or skill.  For example: 

•    Transitional Looping class –where special ed students and their special ed teachers loop together from a self contained class to an inclusion class the next year. 

•    A flexible Resource Room where student can access support how and when needed – instead of being forced to go there on a strict schedule.

AUDIENCE QUESTIONS

Q: Where will we fit these students and programs?  

A: We need to review school footprint –possibly reassign staff, move students back to their home schools, and have less busing.

Q: Why do we have programs available at one middle school and not the other? 

A:  Originally we didn’t have enough students to build programs in both schools, and it was more cost effective to have the program in one school.  We recognize our needs are greater now and are looking to develop the programs in both middle schools.

IV. Board of Education Liaison Update 

Board of Education Special Education Liaison Maureen Jones provided updates on the work of the board and outlined its four standing committees whose charges can be found on the District website: http://www.somsd.k12.nj.us/Page/3769

Regarding the Access and Equity Policy: Ms. Grierson and Dr. Ramos are meeting with supervisors to make sure the new policy is being enforced.  In the spring, there will be another “ Introduction to Advanced Placement” forum at the high school.

Ms. Jones is Chair of the Excellence & Equity Committee, which is providing oversight of the Access and Equity policy and monitoring how it’s being implemented.  There will be an introduction to middle school math forum in April to explain how a student is placed in 6th grade math.  The goal is to get students into Algebra 1 by 8th grade.  We need to ensure students are placed in the most appropriate math class based on their abilities and keep parents informed of the math placements and the policies.

Other highlights of the board update were:

•    It is budget season, and the 2016-17 budget will be discussed at the next 3 BOE meetings, and there will be public forums as well (to be scheduled).  Current estimates project a $3 million shortfall.

•    Regarding professional development: teachers are required to complete mandatory dyslexia training yearly.

•    WIN Period review – Dr Ramos is meeting with middle school administration to review and improve how this period is being used.  Early feedback from teachers indicates that the Enrichment piece has been more successful at engaging students at SOMS than at MMS.

•    The district is reviewing RFPs for revamping its website.

V. Budget Review 

SEPAC Vice President Mike Donoghue explained that special education is getting a lot of attention this budget cycle.  The Board has asked the Special Services department to provide data specific to out-of-district placement, e.g. what kind of needs typify students who are placed in out-of-district schools and at what point in their education are these placements made?  

Mr. Donoghue provided some additional details regarding the ongoing paraprofessional review.  He stated that Dr. Ramos hosted a meeting on December 14 and informed the attendees, including SEPAC representatives, that the district had budgeted for 85 paras for 2015-2016 but currently is utilizing about 130, and that Dr. Ramos described this as “a million dollar budget problem”.  SEPAC has requested further analysis of the numbers along with qualitative data in order to have a more informed view on the situation.

Important budget cycle dates:

•    Feb 22 – Board of Education meeting

•    March 14- Community forum/public speaks on the budget (tentative date)

•    March 31 – Final budget due to Essex County.

VI. Discussion – Parent Resource Packet

SEPAC leadership is revising the district’s Guide to Special Education and creating an accompanying packet of resources for parents.  The following draft table of contents was distributed for comment:

I.    Expectations: A Guide to the Special Education Process

II.    Contacts: Special Services and 504 Administrators

III.    Volunteer Representatives: Special Education Parent Liaisons

IV.    District-wide Advocacy: Special Education Parent Advisory Committee

V.    Peer Support: Special Education Parent/Teacher Organization

VI.    For more information, guidance, and encouragement (e.g. Parenting Center, Understood, Wrightslaw, etc.)

While there was little time for discussion, participants were encouraged to ask themselves, “Is there anything you wished you had when your child was first classified?” and send any feedback on this list of resources or other suggested items to include to:  info@somsepac.org 

VII.    Adjourn

The meeting closed at 9.30 pm. The next SEPAC general meeting is March 15, 2016.

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