Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC) President Jane Bleasdale welcomed the group and noted one change to the agenda, i.e. Board of Education Special Ed Liaison Maureen Jones would be speaking later in the sequence of announcements and updates.
II.Announcements & Updates
- Maplewood Recreation department
Keith Knudsen, Maplewood Director of Recreation, reported on his department’s efforts to expand offerings for children with special needs and their families. For instance, the soccer clinics used to be one-off events and are now multi-session programs offered year round. A basketball company with coaches are experienced with special needs populations is doing a program at the outdoor courts in Memorial Park. The annual end-of-summer pool party will be held again this year. A request was made for this event to be scheduled for a Saturday so more families with working parents can attend.
Training for volunteers to learn how to work with individuals and groups with disabilities has been very popular and will continue. There was less enthusiasm for a support group for parents/caregivers around the challenges of raising kids with disabilities, which was subsequently discontinued. South Orange is joining Maplewood in its collaboration with TryCAN, which provides a variety of recreational opportunities in our area. Mr. Knudsen would like to create a shared calendar that shows all of the events and activities in the two towns, as well as those held by the Special Education PTO, SEPAC, Parenting Center, etc. so there is one place to find all of these happenings.
Questions arose about Camp Maple, which is indeed being offered again this summer. The program follows the same 6-week schedule as Kids Kamp and is for children with special needs (who have an IEP or 504) in Maplewood and South Orange, ages 5-11. For more information, visit: http://www.twp.maplewood.nj.us/index.aspx?nid=521
Regarding new program ideas, Mr. Knudsen asked for a show of hands of those interested in the following suggestions: track, karate, bowling, and swim lessons with a one-to-one ratio. There was some interest in bowling and great interest in swimming.
- School Liaisons
Special Education Parent Teacher Organization (Special Ed PTO) Board Member Sonya Selig asked those school liaisons present for updates and indicate whether they were returning in this role next year.
Sheila Oliver from CHS, indicated that this is her last year as Liaison and that there is a new nominee on the HSA 2015-16 slate to succeed her. She also announced that those high school seniors in out of district placements are entitled to attend Prom (6/22), graduation (6/24 at Essex County College), and Midnight Madness (6/24, the night of graduation.) Two years ago a special needs student attended Midnight Madness with an assistant, who may have been a relative of the student. To have an assistant they know may make it easier for some out of district students to enjoy the event more.
Tuscan School is looking to identify a new special ed liaison for 2015-16, as is Seth Boyden (though the teacher who currently serves is willing to stay on another year, if a new parent volunteer is not identified.)
The liaison to out-of-district families is also moving on from this role next year. In the meantime, she is helping district administrators to develop a survey that is going out shortly to these families (see update from Robert Schmidt, below.)
[Due to time constraints, not all liaisons were able to give updates.]
All school liaisons were thanked for their service this year.
- SOMSD Special Services Department
Robert Schmidt, Special Services Supervisor for grades 6-12, gave a presentation about two helpful tools available to students and families:
Google Read/Write is an add-on application that anyone can use if they have a Google account and is available on the Chrome Web Store. It is free (at least for a trial.) It features a picture vocabulary tool, word predictor (like co-writer), a document reader, fact finder, and speech-to-text. It also has a highlight collector that puts all highlighted words in a new document (e.g. new vocabulary words to look up, elements of a table of contents or outline.) There is also a ‘simplify’ tool that gets rid of all of the ads and extra distractions on the computer screen.
Learning Ally was originally designed for those with dyslexia, but is helpful to all kinds of struggling readers. It features a real human voice – not a robot – so fluency is modeled, and there is an extensive library of books available. Families are advised to contact their case manager to set up an account. If the case manager doesn’t know to do this, have them ask Mr. Schmidt for help. The application works on smart phones, tablets, or any device with an access to an app store. For those who wish to test it out, Mr. Schmidt offered temporary access: Go to Learningally.com and enter Username: Maple07040 Password: Maplewood
Regarding the upcoming out of district survey, Mr. Schmidt welcomed input (firstname.lastname@example.org) on the questions to be posed, such as: What school is your student zoned for? what’s going well at your out of district school? What challenges have you faced? How can the district improve communications, e.g. regarding events and activities at the student’s home school? What supports would be needed to transition the student back into the district? Would you be interested in a confidential message board? and/or a meet and greet with other families whose students are out of district?
- Least Restrictive Environment settlement
SEPAC Board Member Sharon Huetz explained that SOMSD had been cited in a state settlement a year ago for having a disproportionate number of students of color being classified as eligible for special education services and for not doing enough to ensure that students are getting a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment (LRE.)
In accordance with this settlement, the District is implementing a ‘corrective action’ plan, part of which entails involving parents in training and discussion. SEPAC will be looking to the administration for an update early next year and more frequent communication about its progress towards achieving the necessary changes.
- Special Services Director search
SEPAC Board member Mike Donoghue and Special Ed PTO executive committee member Tendai N’Doro shared the news that the previous evening, the SOMA Board of Education had voted to approve the appointment of Ella Rideau as Director of Special Services effective August 1, 2015. Ms. Rideau formerly served as the Special Services Supervisor for grades preK-5 and is succeeding Dr. Patricia Barker, who has resigned.
Mr. Donoghue reiterated SEPAC’s public statements to the Board of Education that the hiring process lacked communication and transparency and the announcement of the decision was hurried, but also that SEPAC was committed to working constructively with Ms. Rideau to help bring about positive change.
Dr. N’Doro said that she was confident in Ms. Rideau’s vision for Special Services and thought that her promotion ensured consistency during a time of significant change within the District administration.
Persistent questions were raised about the soundness of the hiring process, which seem to point to issues that are district-wide – not exclusive to Special Services or this particular hire. The conversation was tabled and picked up by a smaller group later in the evening.
- Board of Education
BOE liaison to the special education community, Maureen Jones, explained her dissenting vote in the Board’s decision to appoint a new Director of Special Services, saying that she thought more time was needed to look at the troubled special services program and develop a vision for what (and who) was needed to turn it around. Ms. Jones will work with the parent community to promote improvements and accountability going forward.
Another topic the board is discussing is that of exponentially rising costs associated with out of district placements. Some schools that receive students from South Orange/Maplewood have had double digit percentage increases from one year to the next, and currently there is no way to contain these costs and their impact on the SOMSD budget. There may be legislative solutions at the state level, for instance that would cap year-to-year tuition increases by receiving districts or special ed private schools. The board will look to the parent community for input should it start working with legislators to develop or advance such a bill.
III. SEPAC & Special Ed PTO Business
Sonya Selig, Special Ed PTO executive committee member, announced that starting in 2015-16, the Special Ed PTO will collaborate with the Parenting Center to host monthly meetings in a return to their mission of providing peer-to-peer support for parents/caregivers of students with special needs in order to help parents better collaborate with the district and become more effective advocates for their children. The more intimate, informal meetings will take place in the conference room on the 2nd floor of the administration building. At the first fall meeting the group will discuss the agenda for the year, including the possibility of adding weekend or evening workshops. Ms. Selig introduced the new and current members of the Special Ed PTO executive committee, who are: Barry Berg, Ann Leeb, Leon Morton, Tendai N’Doro, Rebekah Novemsky, Kristin O’Connor, Sheila Oliver, and Sonya Selig.
SEPAC Board members Jane Bleasdale and Mike Donoghue asked for a vote on the group’s revised bylaws, which were circulated to the membership two weeks previously. The changes passed by a majority vote (bylaws are posted here: https://somsdsepac.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/soma-sepac-by-laws-final-5-19-15.pdf)
Also presented by Mr. Donoghue and SEPAC Board member Erin Siders was a slate of nominees for SEPAC officers to serve in 2015-16:
President Jenny Lindstrom
Vice President Mike Donoghue
Secretary Erin Siders
Policy & Programming Sharon Huetz
Communications & Outreach Reesa Solomon
Members were encouraged to submit additional nominations by June 2 at: https://somsepac.org/contacts/sepac-contacts/ A vote will take place at the first SEPAC meeting of the new school year (date TBA.)
IV. Discussion: SEPAC 2015-16 advocacy goals
SEPAC’s 2014-15 goals of communication, collaboration and transparency will continue into next year, when there will be a new Director of Special Services and a new Superintendent and potentially new receptivity to these goals. Members were encouraged to continue sharing their concerns to inform specific advocacy agenda items that can help better policy and practice across the district.
V. Breakout groups
Participants broke into informal small group discussions and networking.
The structured portion of the meeting adjourned at 9:15. 2015-16 meeting dates for SEPAC and the Special Ed PTO will be disseminated as soon as they are set on the District Calendar.