Notes from SEPAC Meeting
March 11, 2013
Prepared by Mike Donoghue and Mike Paris
Jenny Lindstrom opened the meeting at approximately 7:30pm. The meeting agenda and notes from the January 22 meeting were distributed. Jenny then introduced Dr. Patricia Barker, Director of Special Services.
Dr. Barker opened by inviting SEPAC’s help/advice/recommendations on special education practices and programming. She stated that she had come to respond to concerns and questions raised at the January SEPAC meeting. She noted that she does not view SEPAC as a forum for discussion of individual student matters. Dr. Barker provided updates on several ongoing initiatives:
Effective School Solutions (ESS): This service provider has been brought into the Middle and High Schools to provide counseling services to at-risk students—students with psychological issues and needs, such as phobias, depression, or anxiety—with the goal of allowing these students to stay in-district. ESS can provide services beyond what the district can practically provide (i.e. monitoring medical/medication issues, truancy, etc). Students are typically seen twice weekly individually or in small groups. Dr. Barker stated that the program has been “fairly successful”, has had some “bumps” but that there have been no out-of district placements for students in the program.
Pre-school Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Program
SOMA has partnered with the Morris Union Jointure Commission in the ABA program, which is targeted to students with autism in Pre-K and K-3. The ABA consultants provide advice and training (to teachers, paras, others) on behavioral techniques. The program is considered successful, and a second pre-school class has been added at Clinton with ABA-trained teachers.
District Management Council (DMC)
DMC has been hired to assess the district’s practices and to make recommendations regarding special ed programming and financing. Dr. Barker discussed three initiatives being worked on by DMC, and she previewed best practices recommendations that will be under consideration by the district.
- Inclusion Committee: Composed of DMC representatives, SEPAC and PTO representatives, principals, teachers and others. Dr. Barker and Jenny Lindstrom stated that the committee has spent much time on defining expectations for “inclusion”. The committee’s next step is to take recommendations to principals (see below under ‘best practice recommendations’).
- Finance / Staffing Issues: As a start to this process, data is currently being collected (via a newly-implemented tracking system to examine how all special ed staff are spending their time, with the goal of having reliable data to identify staffing needs. The first round of data collection has been completed, and administrators are currently working out kinks in the process before moving to the next round. Dr. Barker stated that she hopes the data will facilitate the explanation of special ed costs to the Board of Ed.
- Montrose: Dr. Barker stated that this is not a high priority for DMC currently, given that plans for the space remain very up-in-the-air. There have been architectural and related state approval delays, and no final decision has been made about the groups of students who might utilize the facility. Dr. Barker did state that it would be difficult to use the facility exclusively for special ed, given the goals of inclusion, least-restrictive-environment and keeping students in their home school when possible.
Dr. Barker informed the group that there will be six staff cuts in special ed for the upcoming year. She stated that it’s possible that 4 of those cuts would come from moving the Middle/High School Read 180 program (which has 4 classes) from a two-teacher model to a one-teacher model. She stated that, given an overall decline in student numbers, the cuts should not be particularly difficult to absorb.
Dr. Barker informed the group that the new reading program in K-3 Is now composed mainly of general ed students, which is by design. Dr. Barker stated that the goal of the program is to avoid placements into special ed because of reading issues.
Special/general ed integration
Dr. Barker stated that, in general, the lines between special and general ed programming are beginning to blur, with the cross-use of more techniques. She noted that there are bigger discrepancies between general and special ed students in the middle schools than in K-5, and the district is looking for ways to address this. She stated that a goal is to have services help provide a deeper understanding of subject material, rather than simply help students with handling their workload. She emphasized the difference between a complete staff commitment to “learning,” as opposed to just focusing on helping students “cope” with the workload. She feels that the IB MY program is good at getting students to essential elements, so it would potentially be favorable for special ed students.
DMC Best Practice Recommendations
In response to a question, Dr. Barker and SEPAC members outlined 8 best practice recommendations from DMC. These proposals will be next taken to principals for buy-in, as Dr. Barker stated that principal, teacher and parent buy-in would be critical in making sweeping changes successful. Dr. Barker acknowledged that while the recommendations sound sensible, the difficult part (as always) will be in converting broad policy into specific implementation practices. She wants the principals to lead this effort.
It should be noted that DMC has insisted that, to be successful, a district must fully implement all eight recommendations – piecemeal adoption, in the view of DMC, will not succeed. The broad recommendations are:
- Make general ed the preferred setting with content-strong teaching staff (vs. teachers trained in special ed techniques but lacking subject content).
- Embrace standards-based education.
- Give special ed students extra time to LEARN – even if that means sacrificing non-core subject material and specials.
- Maintain the same standards in special ed as in general ed.
- Make extensive use of student achievement data which influences instruction.
- Believe that special ed students can achieve at high levels.
- Foster collaboration between special and general ed programs.
- Embed study skills in core classes.
Dr. Barker stated that the formal timeline calls for policy recommendations in September, but that she will report back on timing, as she does not want to move without full buy-in. SEPAC will ask for regular updates from the administration and their presence at every meeting.
SEPAC Member Issues Presented to Dr. Barker
- A member described frustration about the lack of easily-available, consistent, up-to-date information on available services, resources and special ed processes. It was noted that similar concerns have been voiced at past meetings. Dr. Barker responded by stating that the special ed website is being significantly updated, and it will provide links to relevant documents, including the “Guide to Special Education Services”. SEPAC members asked if they could have input into the next update of that document, and Dr. Barker agreed that would be appropriate given SEPAC’s mandate to advise the district on special ed matters.
- Members asked about the generic source of IEP goal language, noting that goals are often stated similarly or identically across IEPs. Dr. Barker stated that while there is a “cheat sheet” with certain standard goals, each child study team should be preparing specific, appropriate goals for each student, and that it would be inappropriate/difficult to share the generic source data. Members then asked if at least a document could be provided to help define language that appears in many IEPs. Jenny Lindstrom agreed to follow up on this point.
- Members raised issues about transition to the middle schools. Dr. Barker and members all strongly suggested that a middle school Child Study Team member be present for the formulation of the IEP to be used post-transition. Further, members stated that their experience has been that middle school staff has been accommodating is setting up school tours etc.
Dr. Barker then left the meeting.
Report on Proposed State Budget Cuts
Jane Bleasdale led this discussion.
Jane informed the group that she had participated in a conference call hosted by a state advocacy group, which outlined some ominous budget proposals from the state. These included
- Elimination of case manager positions – if implemented, child study teams would be led by any “qualified” person, including a teacher or other school staffer.
- Reduction in time allowed for reviewing, signing and returning IEP documentation (from currently either 15 or 20 days down to 10).
- Relaxation of certification requirements for teachers of English language learners.
Jane suggested that members search the web under “NJ budget cuts for special education” to obtain more details, and she encouraged members to contact their representatives if they have concerns. SEPAC members would like to know from Dr. Barker or Dr. Osborne what the district’s official response is to these proposals.
SEPAC Administrative Matters
Jane Bleasdale led this session.
Jane opened with some background for first-time participants. She explained that the SEPAC (Special Ed Parent Advisory Committee) is required under state law, and that its role is to be an advisor to the district and an advocate for special ed students and families. Our SEPAC was established last year and is still in its formative stage. There is also the Special Ed Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), which serves more as a support group.
Jane shared her recent experience of attending a meeting of the Montclair SEPAC. That SEPAC has been in place for about 10 years. She stated that while Montclair struggles with some of the same issues we face in SOMA, there are at least three components of their program that members credit as positive factors:
- The Montclair SEPAC is very open with their district administrators, principals, teachers, BOE and special ed staff. Those people regularly attend meetings, as compared to SOMA where these people are typically invited only periodically.
- They meet monthly, and typically break the meetings into two sessions – a speaker or workshop with participation from teachers, outside providers, parents, etc, and an administrative meeting.
- They are adamant about not allowing discussion of individual student problems during the formal meeting. They allow for time before and after the meeting for such discussions.
SEPAC Executive Committee
Jane asked for volunteers to form an executive committee, or core group, to focus on organizational issues and to start work on specific initiatives that would prove unwieldy in the full-group setting. Initially, the Exec Committee would focus on finalizing the organization documents, on the initial modifications to the Guide to Special Ed Programming, and the establishment of a system of school liaisons and SEPAC working groups to focus on various issues.
Next SEPAC Meeting
Jane and Jenny expressed a desire to have another full-membership meeting, perhaps in April. There were no objections. In advance of the meeting, it was asked that the proposed SEPAC by-laws be distributed to members for consideration. Earlier, Dr. Barker had indicated that she’d be willing to support another mailing in advance of a meeting.
Several members asked if, going forward, they could be informed by email when important material is added to the SEPAC website.
The group was given the website address, which is http://www.SOMSD—SEPAC.org
The meeting ended at approximately 9pm.