SEPAC – South Orange/Maplewood

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2019 Board of Education Candidate Statements on Special Education

 

 

We are pleased to share with you these 2019 Board of Education candidate statements on special education. We thank all the candidates for taking the time to share their perspectives. 

The Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC) is not a political organization, and it does not endorse candidates in any election. This presentation is intended solely to assist voters by presenting candidate views on issues related to special education. The views expressed herein are the candidates’ own.

The candidates were invited to provide written statements in the form of responses to two questions. The attached responses are presented in alphabetical order by candidate last name.

  1. What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education?
  2. The Special Education Administration has begun taking several steps to improve services in district schools with the goal of reducing reliance on out-of-district placements to serve our most at-risk students. What are your thoughts on these steps, and what should the Administration’s priorities be?

We encourage you to reach out to individual candidates with any questions regarding their responses, and we encourage you to share this presentation with community members who might have an interest in special education. An electronic copy will be available on SEPAC’s website at https://sepacsoma.org/ .

Please visit the website to learn more about special education in SOMA and to sign up to receive regular notices of SEPAC meetings and activities.

But most importantly, we encourage all eligible voters to get out and vote on Tuesday, November 5 th.

Sincerely,

The SEPAC Executive Board

 

** This file has been edited from its original, published version to order candidate responses alphabetical by last name, and to add the responses of Carey P. Smith.**

 

Narda Chisholm-Greene

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education? 

My experience with special education is a personal one! As a young mother, I didn’t anticipate or understand that out of five children four would have required services to ensure that the way they learn would be addressed at every level at schools they would attend. I remember the frustration I felt when not getting the results I needed. But there were many moments that were happy and successful, driven by the wonderful teachers from Marshall. Those teachers recognized what my children needed as well as guided me on how to gain the desired results. I believe we need to continue to support our most needy students and we need to make sure that the district is following the law and making sure that ALL students are getting the help they deserve. Far too often in this district, it is only after lots of hard work and advocacy from parents that’s special education students get the services they need. This is not right! Not all parents understand the complicated and complex system and because of this students do not always get the help they need. We also must work hard to bring our Paras back to the district. Not only is it costing us a lot of money to outsource our paras but the quality of people we have gotten to work with our most needy students is often subpar. I will work hard to try to bring the Paras back to the district if elected.

The Special Education Administration has begun taking several steps to improve services in district schools with the goal of reducing reliance on out-of-district placements to serve our most at-risk students. What are your thoughts on these steps, and what should the Administration’s priorities be?

I believe the district is finally starting to move in the right direction in terms of special education. We finally have a seasoned and very qualified Director in Dr. Morano and we are starting to fix the many problems that she has inherited. When feasible we should look into bringing some of our students back into the district. But we must make sure we have the programs and qualified people in place before we do this. It is not the job of the BOE to dictate what the administration priorities should be. That is the job of the Superintendent & the Special Education Director. My job is to make sure the proper Federal & State Laws & BOE policy is being followed & approve a budget that has adequate resources for special education students. It is also my job to question the administration when that is not occurring. I will not sit quietly by and watch our most needy students continue to suffer.

 

Thair Joshua

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education? 

My experience with special education involved teaching financial literacy to a class of classified middle school students in South Philly while I was attending Drexel University. This was as part of the Junior Achievement program in the late 90’s and I was blown away at their love for the subject and their love for their teacher. She was a constant and reassuring presence in the classroom during times and I found myself in awe of her classroom management skills.

My priorities are to ensure that all students in special education classes are getting the services they need to thrive in the school environment, and that includes protecting OOD placements where necessary. SOMSD must prioritize the hiring of a permanent Director of Special Services. We also need to streamline the chain of command for 504 and IEPs. Currently, 504 plans fall under the Assistant Principal at Elementary schools and IEPs fall under the Director of Special Services. However, if a 504 plan is Special Ed related, I would ask that oversight of those fall under Special Services as well. These are just a few simple and cost efficient steps we can take in the immediate future to shore up our services for special needs students.

The Special Education Administration has begun taking several steps to improve services in district schools with the goal of reducing reliance on out-of-district placements to serve our most at-risk students. What are your thoughts on these steps, and what should the Administration’s priorities be?

The administration’s priority should be to make sure we have the facilities and infrastructure in place before aggressively moving to reduce out-of-district placements. I understand the need to prioritize reducing the number of students we need to send out of district for a quality education. This is one of the biggest expenses the district incurs and if we can spend a little more now to save a lot later, then we should. Additionally, these are members of our community and we should all we can to help them achieve socially and academically in an inclusive setting within our district.

The Long Range Facilities Plan, which will increase school capacity particularly at the elementary school level, is a start as fixing the physical limitations that prevent us from bringing students back. As part of the expansion, I would ask that we set aside some of this new space for self-contained and inclusion classes as well as therapy rooms to give students the safe spaces they need in order to thrive socially and academically in a school environment.

However, we need to work on curricular advances, teacher training and adequate paraprofessional staffing to strengthen the infrastructure of the Special Services program. Without these, the students we are planning to bring back in-district will be met with some of the same structural deficiencies that resulting in them leaving in the first place.

 

Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education? 

I have always been passionate about equity. Before my first election to the Board of Education, equity to me meant equity across racial, socio-economic and gender lines. Then, in my first year on the Board, I was named liaison to the SEPAC and Special Education PTO. These organizations really broadened my definition of equity. They helped me understand the challenges our special needs families face. And, as issues came before the Board, I learned to consider what their implications would be for the special needs members of our school community.

I would like to mention in particular the budget analysis work carried out by Mike Donoghue. Special Education is expensive. Mike demanded and got transparency for SEPAC and taught me a lot about where that money goes and why it is necessary.

I stepped down as liaison when Maureen Jones joined the Board, as we felt that her skills as a speech therapist would be beneficial to the special education community. But my interest in serving all of our children has not waned and I am heartened by the strides Dr. Morana has made since joining the district.  My priorities are to see that the progress Dr. Morana has made is sustained by the new Director of Special Education, when he, she or they comes on board. 

This year we changed our paraprofessional management firm. Currently, we are required to bid this contract each year. To mitigate the effect this transition would have on our special needs students, our current paras were given the right of first refusal before new paras were hired. In addition, we raised our training expectations for paraprofessionals managed by the vendor. The new firm was willing to take on the increased rigor at the most competitive cost. However, this requirement to bid the contract annually does pose a risk to our most vulnerable students. I support the exploration of bringing our paraprofessional staff back in district to determine if we can make that model viable again.

Lastly, I want to make sure that we as a school district never lose sight of the fact that we are one community. We cannot operate in general education or special education silos. We have to work and succeed together.

The Special Education Administration has begun taking several steps to improve services in district schools with the goal of reducing reliance on out-of-district placements to serve our most at-risk students. What are your thoughts on these steps, and what should the Administration’s priorities be?

Dr. Morana has done a wonderful job reorganizing our Special Education Department. I am so impressed with the increased rigor she has brought to the I&RS process. I supported her recommendation to increase the number of supervisors in the Department and having a dedicated supervisor at Columbia.  All of these changes have had a positive impact on our ability to deliver a more consistent experience to our special education students and families.

Regarding out-of-district placement, I would never advocate bringing children back into the district for purely budgetary reasons. But I believe creating an environment that will allow more students to receive services in-district is the right goal. I supported the increased access of our pre-school expansion, iStep expansion and CAP program offer and am happy with the impact they’ve made. What I would like to see moving forward is a multi-year plan to address this issue. We need to understand the needs not currently addressed in our district, then map out a prioritized roadmap to design and implement programs to serve students with those needs.

 

Erin Siders

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education? 

In 2004, my son was diagnosed with Autism at age 3 and enrolled in Marshall School’s Pre-K program for special needs students.  He is now 18 years old and studying game design through the district’s shared time program at Columbia High School and Union County Vocational-Technical School.  During our 16 years in the district, I have advocated on behalf of my son to ensure he received the education he needed.  Additionally, I served as class parent for Marshall’s self-contained Pre-K and kindergarten classes, Special Education Liaisons for Jefferson, MMS and CHS PTAs/HSAs, and served two terms as President of the Special Education Parents Advisory Committee (SEPAC).  My priorities have always been to identify systemic issues that are barriers to the delivery of special education in our district.  That includes; advocating to bring paraprofessionals back in-house, providing information to parents/guardians regarding the special education process, and working with administration on identifying gaps in policies and procedures.  Some SEPAC accomplishments under my leadership;

  • Advocated for a vendor change for the district’s outsourced paraprofessionals
  • Hosted a “How to Create an IEP Binder” program sponsored by Understood.org
  • Advocated for a revised 504 policy and regulations
  • Created a program that highlighted specific transition points for students, with representatives from MECC, Marshall, Maplewood Middle, SOMS and CHS

The Special Education Administration has begun taking several steps to improve services in district schools with the goal of reducing reliance on out-of-district placements to serve our most at-risk students. What are your thoughts on these steps, and what should the Administration’s priorities be?

The idea of bringing out of district (OOD) students back in-district is usually framed in relation to the district’s budget and the assumption the district would realize savings by not having OOD tuition. But reality is, there is a segment of the special needs student population that cannot currently be served in-district. What makes OOD placement successful for many children, are the individualized services, facilities and therapies provided – which our district is not equipped to provide in-house. SOMSD should as a start, focus on using data to determine why in-district students go to out-of-district placements.  What are the trends – is it based on a specific age-group/grade/program that entices students and families to pursue OOD placement?  Are these students gravitating to specific OOD schools? What are the best practices that can be gleaned by how these schools educate our students? What is a realistic timeline for our district to implement some of the top notch services other schools are able to provide?  The district should use that data to build in-house programming that would be beneficial for current in-district students and potentially, returning OOD students.

 

Carey P. Smith

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education? 

I feel equality in the schools is extremely important. Having family members who had special needs during their elementary and middle school years, has helped me appreciate the challenges special needs families face on a daily basis. 

Almost every decision of the Administration and the Board of Education has consequences for the special needs families in our school district.

My priorities, if elected, would be to ensure that all students in the special education program are receiving all the services they need to enable them to thrive in our school system and beyond. One of my first priorities would be to hire a permanent Director of Special Services, and to insure a more efficient process for the adoption of 504 and IEPs.

My second priority would be to bring paraprofessionals back in-house to insure proper training and monitoring of these employees. This will give our students consistency and continuity with staff members who will interact with the children every day.

Lastly, I believe that the district needs to better communicate with the parents of special needs children to help parents navigate this long and sometimes complicated and complex system. This will insure that the children’s needs are being met each and every day.

All children within the district must be given the same opportunities to succeed.

Special Education Administration has begun taking several steps to improve services in district schools with the goal of reducing reliance on out-of-district placements to serve our most at-risk students. What are your thoughts on these steps, and what should the Administration’s priorities be?

One of our district’s biggest expenses is that of out-of-district placements, due to the fact that we do not have the appropriate facilities and infrastructure to allow these students to succeed in our own schools. The administration must make it a priority to improve our facilities and infrastructure to enable all the students within the district to thrive academically, socially and emotionally in inclusive classrooms within the district.

As part of the $160 million dollar facilities plan, the administration should set aside space for inclusion classes, self-contained classrooms as well has the necessary therapy rooms to accommodate all students.

All teachers and paraprofessionals (hopefully in-house) need to be trained appropriately in the special needs curriculum and the means by which to help these students thrive socially, academically and emotionally.

The administration must insure that it is following appropriate laws pertaining to special education and BOE Policies. The Board of Education must provide adequate resources via budget allocation for special needs students. Any deficiencies in the budget for special needs students must be explained and/or remedied with more funding.

 

Sharon Tanenbaum Kraus

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education? 

My oldest son qualified for special education in 2018. After going through the evaluation process, placement, and school year, I have seen the best of what our district’s special education has to offer. But I have also seen some of its worst through my experiences and those shared in our incredibly supportive and open community. In June, the board approved another switch in vendors for paraprofessionals (once again, neglecting to hire them in-house). The ripple effect would mean that the paras that my child had already connected with in his self-contained class would potentially not be with him for another year. That upheaval to a child—who was already one of the most vulnerable in the district—was seemingly made to save money. I recognize that the board had its reasons, but as a parent to a child in the special education program, I felt like no one was speaking for my kid, my family, and our community. 

So I am running to be that voice for all of our students in special education and general education. I hope to bring a balanced view, an unwavering voice, and a dedication to the students both now and in the future.

Special Education Administration has begun taking several steps to improve services in district schools with the goal of reducing reliance on out-of-district placements to serve our most at-risk students. What are your thoughts on these steps, and what should the Administration’s priorities be?

As a parent to three small children (one in special education), my top priority to help them feel safe and supported so that they can reach their potential is consistency. As I look at our board and our numerous superintendents and interim administrative positions, I realize our biggest challenge is inconsistency. We need a steady presence in a director for special services. Without it, we cannot have steady progress to provide the services that our special education students needs. While the board does not hire the director, we have a presence throughout the hiring process. I hope to be that member who will make sure the board holds Dr. Taylor and the administration accountable for hiring a director that will push the department (and our students) forward. 

With the consistent presence of an invested superintendent and a new hire for a special services director, the priorities, especially surrounding improving services/reducing out-of-district placements, of course must center on the student. We need services in each and every school, we need qualified and invested teachers in each and every school, we need to provide those teachers regular professional development, and we need to make sure evaluations happen each year so that the ineffective teachers are not re-hired. If this doesn’t happen, then we owe it to our special education students to place them where they will not only survive but thrive. 

 

Johanna Wright

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education? 

I have been an educator in this district for over thirty years. During that time I have always championed special education and was one of the first educators to have introduced and continued to have inclusion classes in the district. I have seen the decline in inclusion classes in recent years and have been one of the only BOE members to constantly fight against that decline by constantly asking for more supports to be put in place for our special needs students, so we can continue that model of inclusion classes. My votes with regard to the leadership in Special Education speak for themselves. Fighting to keep our own paraprofessionals, voting against those who thought that it was alright to use restraints on our children on school buses was the proper thing to do. As a district, after those votes were contentiously passed, we quickly found out those votes were the right thing to do for our children with special needs. They needed parents as well as board members who would fight hard, to protect and educate them correctly. Those decisions and fights were the right decisions to make and implement. 

Over ten years ago, I was on the front line fighting to keep our paraprofessionals, and I am still on the front line trying to bring them back. I have used my voice on the Board to continually talk about how we must look for ways to bring not only our paraprofessionals, but also our custodians back to the district. Our own custodians brought a feeling of safety and security to our children. Custodians had for years a record of noticing when a child was in distress and bringing it to the attention of the teacher or parents. 

Special Education Administration has begun taking several steps to improve services in district schools with the goal of reducing reliance on out-of-district placements to serve our most at-risk students. What are your thoughts on these steps, and what should the Administration’s priorities be?

The district is starting to right the ship, thanks to Dr. Morana, but we still have a long way to go. We must get control of our costs related to special education lawsuits. Our parents should not have to resort to suing the district in order to get the services that our students by law deserve. We must look for ways to control costs by bringing back some of our out-of-district students and placing them in the least restricted environment as required by law. But that can only happen if we make sure that we have the correct people and services in place to help our special education students. We must do a better job of attracting, supporting and consequently maintaining the teachers with experience, traits and understanding to develop our children. This is done in other school districts today (Montclair, Bloomfield, Sommerville), and it used to be done here. It’s over due to do the right thing again. 

And lastly, cruelty should not be a part of the mix we include in educating our special children here. We must do a better job of making sure we do not continue the trend of suspending our special needs students at such a high rate. I have been vocal about my opposition and will continue to speak up. 

 

 

 

 


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