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SEPAC Presentation by Gerri Colon

Gerri Colon, Special Education Supervisor of 9-12 was SEPAC’s Guest Speaker at the October Meeting. The focus topic was evaluations, reevaluations, and the ABCs of Special Ed. In this slide presentation, Gerri addresses questions related to this topic.

The Presentation can be found here: https://sepacsoma.files.wordpress.com/2020/10/sepac-presentation-by-gerri-colon.pdf

SEPAC BOE Questionnaire Responses 2020

We are pleased to share with you these 2020 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.

Results from the SEPAC Parent Survey, September 2020

SEPAC Letter to Dr. Taylor & BOE (5/11/20)

The following letter was submitted on behalf of SEPAC to SOMSD Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor and members of the SOMSD Board of Education, and read partially during the May 11, 2020, meeting of the BOE.

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May 11, 2020

 

Dear Members of the Board of Education:

Recently, SEPAC leadership met virtually with Drs. Taylor, Alegria and Morana to discuss issues of great concern to families with children on IEPs and 504s within the South Orange Maplewood community. At the outset of that meeting, we stated what we feel is essential to acknowledge and what we repeat now, and that is this:

The situation we find ourselves, the coronavirus pandemic and the extended distance learning plan  which has now gone on for two months and which does not have a foreseeable end, is no one’s fault and beyond the control of any of us. The challenges are unprecedented and the pandemic has put all of us in unchartered waters.

Our conversation assisted in understanding the deliberate thinking done by Dr. Taylor and his Senior Leadership Team in making decisions and communicating them. They appear to give each issue considerable thought and do not act in haste. They must follow broadly issued State guidelines and interpret them for local use while continuing to work on the district’s future, and not just its present. The district’s Access and Equity policy is an important community statement that attempts to create fairness for all students and guides their work. Leveling access to computers and the internet by distributing 900 computers and 100 hotspots has been a critical achievement.

It seems, however, that using the Access and Equity policy as the measure of what can be done and what cannot be done comes into conflict with the need for individualization that hundreds of students’ IEPs and 504s demand. SEPAC has heard from many parents about inconsistent (across and within schools) and inappropriate (to the individual student) service delivery of instruction and related services and the slow speed with which these things have taken place.

Inconsistencies have long existed in this school district, between its schools and even within its schools. During our meeting, Dr. Taylor informed SEPAC leadership of additional challenges that he faces that have exacerbated these issues.  Some teachers are not as savvy about how to provide instruction through technology, there are those who are not comfortable teaching from their home, fearing criticism of one sort or another, some have their own children who must be attended to, etc. If we understood Dr. Taylor correctly, teachers have been given some latitude to provide instruction as they see fit using platforms of their choice. However, SEPAC is also hearing about restrictions to creativity that get in the way of meeting our children’s specific needs, particularly of a social and emotional nature. Is there a restriction against using Zoom or Google Meet to gather students together in an interactive  or social skills group setting? One week, teachers use these platforms and then they do not. It is all now very unclear whether use of these platforms is permitted or encouraged.

At the same time, we are hearing from parents about those outstanding teachers and therapists who are going above and beyond, individualizing and trying their best to maintain the hard-fought academic gains a child on an IEP has made. We appreciate these people immensely and will  always remember them and what they did during a most confusing and stressful period.  They seem to know technology is a tool and teaching or treatment is a gift.

Teachers and paraprofessionals have their unions to speak for them. The district listens and negotiates appropriate adjustments. They have employment contracts with the district or a third-party vendor that must be honored. Parents, and specifically parents of children with special educational needs, do not have a union to convey their frustrations and concerns. SEPAC is their unified voice. Teachers are getting professional development to better design virtual instruction (hopefully, interactive instruction). But parents are the ones implementing the instruction, particularly of our youngest students and our most challenged. Where is our training? Parents are shouldering a significant portion of the load. In some of our cases, the parent is the teacher, therapy team, counselor, the one-on-one paraprofessional and the peers all rolled into one.  SEPAC learned from Dr. Alegria that the paraprofessional corps has been doing extensive training on all sorts of crucial topics during the closure and will return more prepared to work with our children than ever before. This is, of course, wonderful news but where is the recognition of and the coordination with the parents who are doing their work right now?

I bring these points to your attention here in mid-May, 6 weeks before the end of the academic year. But for many of our most challenged and vulnerable children, the school year does not stop on the last day with the immediate commencement of Extended School Year. ESY will likely proceed virtually, even if the State allows for in building use on July 1.

Given the length of the school closure, SEPAC recommends:

* The review of every student’s IEP for ESY eligibility as difficulties with new issues of retention and regression developing during the distance learning period;

*Optional parent training and tutorials on topics such as the educational platforms being utilized, best practices for facilitating remote learning, behavioral interventions, motivational techniques, etc. made available to every family with an IEP and/or 504 plan;

*Access to additional services that address the social/emotional needs of our youngest students and our most challenged students;

*The district will need to plan for dual tracks of  in-school and virtual instruction and related services going forward into the Fall as there are medically fragile children who are unable to attend in-school instruction and there will be other families likely to refuse to send their children back into the buildings until such time as COVID-19 is no longer a threat in our community.

Experts in the field of special education law have been recommending for weeks that school districts emphasize three things in their work with the families of children with special needs. 1. Act in good faith, 2. Collaborate with parents on planning and 3. Use Creativity.  SEPAC does appreciate the difficult decisions and hard work that the administration has done during this period of distance learning and the limitations on the members of the Board of Education but we implore them, and you, to consider these three points in every plan as we all move forward together to proactively find solutions.

Respectfully,

Ann Leeb, South Orange

SEPAC President

SEPAC Letter to Dr. Taylor & BOE (4/20/20)

The following letter was sent to SOMSD Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor and members of the SOMSD Board of Education, and read aloud during the Public Speaks portion of their April 20, 2020, meeting.

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BOE members and Dr. Taylor, this is a message I have written to my fellow parents of children with special needs. I felt you should read it as well…

April 20, 2020

Dear fellow parents,

We are all going through an impossible situation. Parents, students, administrators, teachers, counselors, therapists, paraprofessionals, are living a reality that isn’t normal. But it is where we are and we have to be able to somehow come together and make it work, on some level, for all of us.

Our world is experiencing an international health catastrophe that is extremely stressful and frightening, for everyone.

This impossible situation is going to go on for longer than any of us want to think about. While we are in it, the greatest challenge, while trying to educate our children, will be to be forgiving to ourselves. We cannot do what their teachers, therapists, counselors, paras, case managers do.

We need to consider our expectations and weigh them against our reality.

We cannot expect our children to receive, anywhere close to, the level of special education in distance learning that they receive at school. It is not possible. As parents, we do not have the expertise, training, or time to take on the responsibilities of a team of educational professionals.

However, we can and do expect…

1.    Clear regular communication that comes (more often than it has) from the Special Services Department and from all the service providers.

2.    Considerable support, thoughtful collaboration and partnership from school staff and District administration. They all work for the benefit of our students and should be reaching out regularly with suggestions, strategies, understanding and encouragement. There should be proactivity, not just waiting for families to reach out to them.

3.    An acknowledgement that families are expected to do a nearly impossible task to educate their special needs children. (I feel that this fact hasn’t been stated enough.)

4.    The rights of every special education student are followed in an equitable manner. Any student that has related services should be offered it via teletherapy. It may not be as often or as long, but it is not up to the District to decide who shouldn’t get these services. Each therapist should reach out to their students/families to coordinate these services and schedule a session at least 1x/week.

5.    An equitable grading plan shared with special needs students in the middle and high schools. These children, in particular, are experiencing a high level of stress and anxiety due to the lack of necessary supports from not being at school and a plan needs to be made clear to them and their families.

6.    Shifting everyone’s expectations from assignments getting completed to recognizing that any work that the student is getting done is a success.

I believe that the most important message to our children from us, the families, and from the School District, is to let them know that they are safe at home and we are going to help them be the best students that they can be at this time. It will be different than how they are at school and that’s okay. When they go back, they will get support and care needed to be the best students they can be at school. There are enough stressors from the very nature of this situation that adding to it by dwelling on the impossibility of providing special services that we don’t have the wherewithal to give is not going to make things better for anyone.

Don’t get me wrong; I feel angry, frustrated, disappointed and scared. I hate that my daughter isn’t at school receiving the special education that is hers to receive. But I put those negative feelings aside so I can help my child have a positive home learning experience. I encourage everyone to do the same. And, as cliché as it sounds, remember that we are all in this together so let’s support and encourage each other and all of the people that are trying to make this impossible situation work, while I look forward to the same encouragement and support from them.

Beth Cosentino

Special Education co-Liaison, Tuscan
The feelings and concerns expressed reflect those of Special Education Parent Advisory Committee leadership and they have chosen to co-sign this letter.

Ann Leeb, President of SEPAC

Michele Richman, Vice President of Outreach

Michael Thompson, Vice President of Policy

Malia Herman, Secretary

Michael Donoghue, Budget Advisor

Reesa Salomon, Past President of SEPAC

Alex Dubin and Lindsey Stone, Special Education co-Liaisons, Montrose

Caryn Gehrke and Anna Herbst, Special Education co-Liaisons, Seth Boyden

Alison Kuhlman, Special Education co-Liaison, Tuscan

Allison Gluck and Jeremy Wintroub, Special Education co-Liaisons, Marshall

Brooke Horowitz, Special Education Liaison, Clinton

Jennie Fischette, Special Education Liaison, Jefferson

Michelle Reback, Special Education Liaison, South Mountain

Jocelyn Ryan, Special Education Liaison, South Orange Middle

Pam Donoghue, Special Education Liaison, Maplewood Middle

John Clarke, Special Education Liaison, Columbia High

Danielle Perrotta, Special Education Liaison, Out of District

SEPAC Letter to Dr. Taylor & BOE (2/24/20)

The following letter was sent to SOMSD Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor and members of the SOMSD Board of Education regarding paraprofessionals:

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February 24, 2020

Dear Dr. Taylor and Members of the Board of Education:

As you know, SEPAC has been expressing concern over the employment status of paraprofessionals in our district for the better part of a decade. Every year, SEPAC advocates for change and every year, the situation remains the same. Once again, we feel compelled to bring this issue to your attention.

Since 2011, when the district dismissed the paraprofessionals from direct employment in favor of an outsourced model, SEPAC has heard from many families gravely concerned about the quality and consistency of para coverage. This ongoing frustration is not surprising given a history where paraprofessionals had formerly been district employees with benefits and a possible career path. In those days, it was not uncommon for paraprofessionals to move on to more significant roles in their schools. Now these critically important support staff members are employees of the lowest-bidding agency, without significant benefits and with a much more difficult path to full-time employment status. Professional development, a key element in understanding the special needs of the young children with whom they interact all day, every day, was previously considered a long-term investment; now it is a short-term expenditure on a more transient workforce. There is no guarantee in any given year that the same service provider will return in the fall to vet, hire, supervise and train paraprofessionals. There have been three different vendors winning the contract in a three-year period. These all-to-frequent changes in service providers, combined with low pay and less training, has been to the extreme detriment of our most vulnerable students. We don’t know who would dispute these facts. Dr. Taylor, you have stated on numerous occasions that direct district employment of paraprofessionals is the preferred method of employment for these valuable and valued individuals.

One has only to read recent local headlines, specifically the sentencing of a male paraprofessional who performed lewd actions in the hallways of Jefferson School in 2017, to 10 years in state prison, to see the most immediate and devastating impacts of a district allowing vendors to provide insufficiently vetted and monitored staff to work with students. A district cannot outsource its responsibility for the health and safety of its students to a third-party vendor.

It is really, however, in the routine day-to-day interactions between students and staff where opportunities can be seized or lost. Particularly in the early years of schooling, vulnerable students benefit from high-quality and consistent support. This quality and consistency of support is so much harder to come by when a district does not have direct control over its staff. We have heard anecdotally of high rates of paraprofessional absenteeism in some schools, leading to a difficulty in the Special Services department meeting IEP obligations completely. There have also been reports of frequent, abrupt and poorly communicated staff changes. We know the paraprofessionals unionized last year, thus expressing frustration with the frequent changes in employers they have faced and the instability that creates. Particularly with low unemployment, we are concerned that some of the more talented paraprofessionals may seek work elsewhere. All the while, our students aren’t getting the appropriate support they require and deserve.

It is easy to measure the difference in the short-term financial costs associated with employment vs. outsourcing. It is much more difficult to measure the impact in lost opportunities for students and in long-term financial consequences to the district, which take the form of more intensive support requirements and out-of-district placements in later years. Money spent now on high quality, district employed paraprofessionals, who supplement and complement the efforts of special educators with advanced skill sets, is likely to save money later. Nobody we have spoken to has ever said that outsourcing has been good for students. What has been lacking is (obviously) money and the will by the Board of Education to make the trade-offs needed to support a return of the paraprofessionals to district employment.

SEPAC fully understands that the financial trade-off is significant and daunting. For that reason, we feel it would be a reasonable approach to re-employ the paraprofessional corps in a stepped approach over time as opposed to one potentially destabilizing move. We ask that in the 2020-2021 budget analysis, the Board and the public be presented with detailed analyses of various approaches to re-employing paraprofessionals. The analysis should be both qualitative and quantitative as well as multi-year. As illustrated below in the appendix to this letter, there has been much expressed support for re-employment. Bringing back paraprofessionals in house is not just a Special Services issue. Paraprofessionals interact with nearly all students, in every one of our district schools, enriching the academic and social experience within our buildings. SEPAC leadership asks the Board to do what it has promised to do and to act on what they know is right for our students.

Sincerely,

SOMA Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC)

Ann Leeb, President; Michele Richman, Vice President-Outreach; Michael Thompson, Vice President-Policy; Malia Herman, Secretary; Reesa Salomon, Past President; and Michael Donoghue, Budget Advisor

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Appendix

Current and past Board members, as well as Board candidates, have expressed support for re-employing paras, or at least doing the analysis to support such a move. Here are some excerpts from public statements:

Board of Education President, Annemarie Maini (June 13, 2019 BOE meeting@2 hours and 27 minutes/4 hours and 9 minutes)

Prior to a moment of silence in memory of a paraprofessional, Latoya Deck, who had recently passed away, Ms. Maini stated that the return of paraprofessionals to district employment would be discussed by the BOE members at their August 2019 retreat and pledged to find a way to make that return happen.

Board Member Johanna Wright (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“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.”

Board Member Erin Siders (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“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.”

Board Member Thair Joshua (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“However, we need to work on curricular advances, teacher training and adequate paraprofessional staffing to strengthen the infrastructure of the Special Services program.”

Former Board Member Stephanie Lawson Muhammad (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“I support the exploration of bringing our paraprofessional staff back in district to determine if we can make that model viable again.”

Recent Board candidate Narda Chisholm-Greene (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“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.”

Recent Board candidate Carey P. Smith (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“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.”

Recent Board candidate Sharon Tanenbaum Kraus (2019 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“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”.

2018 Board candidate Christopher Trzaska (2018 SEPAC Board Candidate Statement)

“Budgetary constraints have been the bane of Special Ed in this district for ages, back even before the staff was cut and paras were outsourced to fix shortfalls, and should be something squarely on the BOE’s list of funding considerations for specific detailed review during the annual budget process.”

2019/2020 SEPAC Meeting Dates

SEPAC meeting dates 2019-2020:

Where & When: Central Office District Meeting Room, unless otherwise specified. All meetings are 7:30-9:00 p.m.

Thursday October 10 – General Meeting/ Voting for New Executive Board (525 Academy)
Attendance is encouraged for anybody with an interest in Special Education in the South Orange Maplewood School District. Introduction to the “advocacy for all” and the “support of the individual” that is at the core of what SEPAC does.

Tuesday, November 19 – Preschool, Elementary School and Newcomers 
Target audience: those with children in or entering Preschool, in or entering Elementary School or are newcomers to Special Education in the school district.

Wednesday, January 22 – Middle School/High School 
Target audience: those with children in or entering Middle School or in or entering High School.

Thursday, February 20 – Get SMART! (IEP goals, that is) 
Target audience: anyone who wants their children’sIEP goals to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-oriented and Time-bound.

Wednesday, March 25 – Out of District
Target audience: those with children in out of district placements and those who want to learn more about the subject.

Tuesday, April 21 – In and out, here and there. Transitions at every age and every stage. 
Target audience: those with children facing transitions from PreK to Kindergarten, fifth grade to Middle School, Middle School to High School, and High School to Beyond (with Marshall Jefferson transition also addressed.) Plus an update on the Integration and Elementary Reorganization plans for 2021-2022.

Tuesday, May 19 – General Meeting
Year’s wrap up and parental preparation for the

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. 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Ficarra letter 3-18-2019

Here is the letter that SEPAC sent to Dr. Ficarra in regards to the variety of methods that secondary teachers are using to communicate assignments to students.  The content is also shared below.

March 18, 2019

525 Academy Street Maplewood, NJ 07040

Dear Dr. Ficarra:

I am writing to you as the SEPAC president about an issue of great concern to parents of middle school and high school aged children both with and without IEPs and 504 Plans. The issue is the variety of methods that secondary teachers are using to communicate assignments to students. When my daughter with severe ADHD and accompanying Executive Function deficits was in 6th grade at SOMS, she had teachers using Edmodo, Google Classroom, a whiteboard with assignments that students were expected to copy down, Remind texting, and specific teacher websites. This was so confusing for her that we had to make a spreadsheet for her with each class listed along with the online (or paper-based) platform that she needed to check daily for assignments.

I know that this issue is not specific to my daughter alone. Last month, at our SEPAC meeting, focused on secondary education students, this topic came up again (as it did last year at the same meeting) due to the prevalence of the issue. Many parents described similar situations and concern about the lack of a consistent online platform for teachers to communicate assignments to students. This is extremely challenging for students with a variety of learning challenges.

We have discussed this issue with Dr. Morana but wanted to reach out to you as this affects students in general education as well. Students transitioning to middle school have a large learning curve, which is to be expected as they adjust to 8 periods a day; however, making communication consistent from one class to the next and from one year to the next could really help students to be successful. Somewhere along the line, the notion arose that the administration could not dictate a particular platform to teachers due to contractual issues and I would appreciate your explanation of whether or not this is actually the case. I would be happy to meet with you to discuss this further if that would be productive.

Best, Reesa Salomon, SEPAC President On behalf of SOMA SEPAC

CC Mr. Keith Bonds CC Dr. Laura Morana CC Ms. Ann Bodnar CC SOMSD Board of Education members

BOE Letter 2019-2020 Budget 3-15-2019

Here is the letter that SEPAC sent to the Board of Education in regards to the 2019-2020 Budget.  The content is also shared below.

March 15, 2019

South Orange Maplewood Board of Education

525 Academy Street

Maplewood, NJ  07040

 

Dear Members of the Board,

I’m writing on behalf of SEPAC as a follow-up to the comments made at the March 11 Budget Workshop.

Again, we thank the Administration staff for their work on the 2019-2020 budget.  It is good to again see a budget that does not rely on headcount cuts to balance and in which we are finally seeing meaningful increases in state aid.

We are especially glad to hear of the new Special Ed Supervisor position, which is something SEPAC has been advocating for some time now.

I’d like to re-iterate some of SEPAC’s thoughts on the out-of-district (OOD) projections:

SEPAC fully understands that OOD tuition is one of the district’s key financial challenges, and we of course support efforts to improve in-district programs that will allow for the eventual reduction of tuition costs.  This is smart financially, and is also in keeping with the goal of educating students in their least restrictive environment.

That said, as Board members who have served in past years know, prior Administrations routinely projected declines in OOD tuition that never materialized.  SEPAC is pleased that the current administration seems as focused on the programmatic side of the equation as on the financial, as one is a prerequisite for the other.

However, the devil remains in the details, and we ask the Board to do its diligence and seek more information about specifics, including:

  • Has the district performed an evaluation of current OOD placements to identify gaps in services that need to be filled?
  • Other than the additional Supervisor position, what staffing and structuring changes are being made to fill in the gaps?
  • What programs are being introduced or enhanced to help fill the gaps? Specifically:
    • Will ESS and Istep be expanded? We’ve heard unconfirmed reports that there is a waiting list for ESS and have ongoing concerns that the Istep programs lack effective backup staffing.
    • Will the Columbia Academy Program be modified or expanded to support more students?
    • What changes are being proposed as part of the elementary school reconfiguration?
    • Will the 504 Policy be fully implemented so that the Administration can evaluate what is working and what is not, so that best practices can be shared across the district?
    • Will evidence based programs be put in place in the middle schools to assist students with reading comprehension and dysgraphia?  I and other SEPAC members have personal experience with this issue.  Our students can mechanically read and write, but their evaluations indicate difficulty with comprehension and expression.  Yet case managers have told us there is literally no program they can offer these students.  I’ve heard of at least one case where this issue was a primary factor leading to an OOD placement.
    • What will be done to make sure there are special education teachers in every classroom when needed , and that teacher absences will not impact student services?

This is not an all-inclusive list, but is illustrative of the type of commitments needed to make reductions in OOD tuition plausible.

SEPAC looks forward to continuing to work with Dr. Morana and her staff and will be available to discuss any of these matters in more detail.

 

Sincerely,

Mike Donoghue

On Behalf of SOMA SEPAC

Reesa Salomon, President

Ann Leeb, Vice President

Michael Thompson, Vice President

CC: Dr. Thomas Ficarra

CC: Dr Laura Morana

CC: Mr. Paul Roth

 

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