Special Ed Community Meeting Notes 5/19/15


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 (rschmidt@somsd.k12.nj.us) 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.

 VI. Adjourn

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.

So what is going on at the Montrose School?

The new South Orange Maplewood School District’s Montrose Early Childhood Center and its Director, Renee Joyce, are hosting an informal meet and greet on Thursday, June 4 at 7 pm (raindate: Friday, June 5).

This will be an evening of questions and answers about how the building will be utilized starting September 2015 and an opportunity to get firsthand information about its exciting programming.

*Bring your own lawn chair, and the group will assemble on the front lawn of Montrose School, 358 Clark Street, South Orange.

All are welcome.  For questions about the event, please call Ms. Joyce at 973-378-7600, ext. 3040.

March 24th Meeting Minutes

Minutes from the South Orange/Maplewood Special Education Community

March 24, 2015

I. Welcome and Call to Order

Jane Bleasdale chaired the meeting, and began with announcements and updates.

II. Announcements and Updates

Department of Special Services

  • Pat Barker, SOMSD Director of Special Services, reported that there were only minor glitches in administration of the first round of PARCC tests. Dr. Barker and Ella Rideau, Special Services Supervisor K-5, said that the students who took the test were ‘troopers’, about 120-150 opted out, and we don’t yet know what, if any, penalties the district could incur if participation falls below a state determined threshold.

Questions were raised about the reading comprehension sections and if/how tests would be scored for students who had passages read to them; this remains a gray area. Regarding students asking clarifying questions, it was stated that in the past, questions could be reworded but not clarified, and with PARCC, proctors can no longer reword either.

Additional concerns voiced were related to the use of a scribe to type or handwrite test answers (some confusion about what is allowed here) and the frustration by some students who are allowed extra time but finished early and were not able to return to class. Dr. Barker said she welcomed this and additional feedback and would pass it up the appropriate channels.

  • Barker, who will be stepping down on August 1, 2015, said that the Director of Special Services position will be posted next week and is expected to be filled quickly, with input from the newly appointed superintendent.
    • In response to a question regarding training of paraprofessionals, it was explained that the Educational Services Commission trains paras at the beginning of the school year, and the district offers additional training opportunities during the year, e.g. on topics such as data collection for Rethinking Autism. Some more specialized training is offered by Morris Union Jointure. Interviews for the director of the Montrose Early Childhood Education Center, to open in September 2015, will be conducted in the next few weeks.

Board of Education

  • Board of Education Special Education Liaison, Maureen Jones, shared the news that Dr. John Ramos has been named the new SOMSD Superintendent, and that the search committee was impressed with his vision for and experience in special education.

School Liaisons and other updates

  • CHS Liaison Sheila Oliver shared information about two events: “Engaging and Empowering Families of Children with Autism” on April 15, 2015 8:30am-1pm at United Way of Northern NJ, 60 South Fullerton Ave, Montclair; and a “Transition Conference” held by Autism NJ on April 20, 2015 8am-4pm at Renaissance Woodbridge Hotel, 515 US Highway 1 South, Iselin. Ms. Oliver also told the group about Mom2Mom, a 24/7 peer-support helpline for mothers of children with special needs in NJ directed by Rutgers Univ. For more information, call: 877-914-MOM2. Live Chat: mom2mom.us.com.

(NOTE: Updates were paused here and resumed following Mila Jasey’s presentation)

  • Jefferson, Clinton, and CHS need new Special Ed liaisons for the 2015-16 school year. Those interested should contact Sonya Selig: sonyaselig@gmail.com
  • Marshall School Liaison Ava Padmore shared plans for events and activities during Autism Awareness Month in April, including distributing bracelets to whole school and possibly a Saturday forum to reach a broader range of parents. This has the potential to become a district-wide effort in the future.
  • Jefferson and MMS Liaison Sonya Selig is working on a sex chromosome disorder awareness day.
  • Out-of-District Liaison, Ann Leeb, reported that she had a productive brainstorming session with Special Services Supervisor for grades 6-12, Rob Schmidt, to find ways to better communicate with families of students in out-of-district placements.
  • SEPAC members Sharon Huetz and Erin Siders also met with Mr. Schmidt, as well as with MMS  Principal Mr. Adams and Assistant Principals Mr. Brown and Mr. Gold, and special education teacher Mrs. Murphy, regarding smoothing the transition from elementary to middle school and will be working with MMS and SOMS principals on outreach and orientation for incoming students and parents.
  • Barry Berg announced four upcoming Parenting Center workshops: “Strength for Their Journey” on April 1st 7:30- 9pm, “Children, Adolescents and Social Media – The Perfect Storm” on April 8th 7:30-9pm, “Mindful Parents/Mindful Children: Practicing Together” on April 13th 7:00-8:30pm, and “Parenting Anxious Children” on April 28th 7:30 – 9:00. For more information, visit: http://www.theparentingcenter.info
  • SOMEA and a local parents group are co-hosting a showing of the film “Standardized” on April 8th at 7pm at Maplewood Memorial Library.
  • Special Ed Soccer Clinic was a success and will be run again, and a track clinic is under consideration. Parents should contact the Maplewood Rec Dept with questions or suggestions, e.g. could pre-school aged children participate?
  • Michele Tyler, a representative from SPAN (Statewide Parent Advocacy Network) introduced herself and said that SPAN is looking for parents to work with on the issue of disproportionality in the SOMSD district. She can be reached at mtyler@spannj.org.


Mike Donoghue (SEPAC Executive committee member) gave the following 2015-16 budget overview:

  • Overall ’15-16 budget is ~ $124mm, up from ~$120mm this year.
  • 1st time in years, no specific SpEd cuts are budgeted.
  • The 5 sped FTE cuts budgeted for this year were not made due to demand.
  • State aid was flat to last year, but is still far below full funding (according to the State’s own formula), and SOMA still fares poorly among districts statewide. Federal IDEA aid was slightly down.
  • Big break this year on healthcare costs which are actually down due to new staff contributions.
  • For only 2nd time in 5 years, BOE has voted to increase operating tax levy by more than 2%. It’s about 2.4%, or about 2.1% all-in including debt service.
  • During the January meeting budget update, there was a question about the impact of PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes) for real estate developers in the two towns. The BOE has since requested data on enrollments at PILOT’d developments and will analyze for use in potential discussions with the townships.

III.            Presentation: NJ State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey

Ms. Jasey’s Chief of Staff gave a formal introduction that touted the Assemblywoman’s longtime commitment to education and service as a member of the SOMSD President’s Council and Board of Education prior to running for state office. She listed her membership the Education Committee, Higher Education Committee (Chair), and Joint Committee on Public Schools.

  • Jasey then took the floor and talked about some of the current education issues she is engaged with, primarily mandating kindergarten for all districts in the state (87 still do not have full-day) by changing the requirement of ‘mandatory and efficient’ education for all children starting at 6 to start at age 5.
  • On PARCC testing, Ms. Jasey said that she was part of a bipartisan effort that tried to slow its implementation (which was vetoed), and is now looking at what is being done to monitor the impact of the testing and test prep on instructional time and at where all of this testing is leading. It should not be high stakes, punitive, or stressful, but rather inform teachers about where more time and attention is needed so students are learning what they need to.
  • Jasey spoke about vo-tech high schools, citing Union County in particular where there are 5 specialized high schools. She thinks there are not enough seats compared with the number of students who would benefit from this type of setting and instruction.
  • Regarding special education, she mentioned one recent improvement, which is that schools of education in NJ are requiring that those seeking teaching certifications must also get an ‘endorsement’ in special education.
  • When asked about a bill capping increases in special education private school tuitions at 2%, she said that because of the partisan divide, that particular bill was not likely to move forward but that if parents felt this was a needed change, a new, tweaked bill could be initiated and possible brought to a vote.
  • In response to other funding-related questions, Ms. Jasey explained that the crunch can be traced to the federal government, which is supposed to be funding IDEA at 40% and has never paid more than 17%.   She also said that while the state is in such financial trouble, there is little that complaining will accomplish but that it is a time for strategic planning to figure out what can be done when money is again available in the future.
  1. Other Discussion

The formal part of the meeting ended at 9:20, leaving little time for structured breakout groups. Some participants stayed to meet their school liaisons and network.

From the “Educational Technology” Presentation by Mara Liebowitz and Jennifer Cudmore from Clinton Elementary School

Tools that some of our teachers are using in their classrooms and/or that parents may want to explore for home use are:

For Language Arts

O Kidspiration / Inspiration – Brainstorming $$
O Sentence Builder – Build grammatically correct sentences
O Story Builder- Beginning Writing $$
O Mad Libs – Grammar
O Read2Go – Audiobooks (part of bookshare.org)
For Math
O Division for Kids
O Multiples
O Thinking Blocks – Math (bar modeling)
O STMath
O Show – Me – Interactive Whiteboard
O Quizlet – General Study Skills
O Dragon Dictation – Voice to Text
O Quick Voice – Audio Recording
O Edmodo – Educational Social Media
Web sites
O Vocabularyworkshop.com
O Website for vocabulary workbook grades 3-5
O numbernut.com
O livebinders.com (search kbeane)
O Aleks.com
O quick tables to learn facts

SOMA SEPAC Meeting Notes 10-22-13

SEPAC MEETING for South Orange Maplewood School District

Tuesday October 22, 2013 7-9pm

District Meeting Room 525 Academy Street

Maplewood NJ 07040

SEPAC President Jane Bleasdale welcomed everyone and encouraged attendees to use the first 30 minutes of the meeting (7-7:30pm) to network with other parents, share personal experiences, and learn from the experiences of others.

Clinton Elementary Special Education Teachers Jennifer Cudmore and Mara Liebowitz, the evening’s guest speakers, then provided a presentation on assistive technology.  They demonstrated how they use a number of web sites, software packages, and applications in the classroom to help students with learning differences to access the curricula, improve their skills, and build their confidence.  Their slides with the lists of technologies they recommend will be posted on the SEPAC web site.

Following the presentation, the discussion turned to the State Department of Education’s Consolidated Monitoring Report, which cited the District for noncompliance in a number of areas of State-funded services to special educations students.  The Board of Education (BOE) discussed this report and the District’s Corrective Action Plan at their August 2013 meeting.  Some SEPAC members stated that the problems cited by the State confirm parents’ concerns regarding poor communication with parents and inconsistency of policy and practice.  

Two members of the BOE were present and offered suggestions for how the group could move forward specifically to  focus on the areas where the District administration is ‘appealed’, meaning it disagrees with the states assessment, to see if these are areas where parents have similar concerns.

Where the District’s Corrective Action Plan calls for Child Study Team training, SEPAC members are very interested in learning what and when that training will be.  The Executive Committee will follow up with Dr. Barker and keep the group informed via email and its web site.

Other topics raised at the meeting included:

  • Medicaid reimbursement forms – while some parents received this notice in the mail with an FAQ, others were handed it in IEP meetings.   Many parents were confused by the lack of context – in lay language – and potential implications for their children’s services, their insurance coverage, etc.  Questions also arose regarding whether the Medicaid reimbursements to the District would be reinvested in special education services.
  • Transitions, especially from 5th to 6th grade, and ensuring that IEPs were honored from one child study team to another.
  • Delays in evaluations, cursory evaluations, and redirection of parents to seek private evaluations at their own expense instead.
  • Parents feeling pressured by Child Study Teams to pursue a 504 versus and IEP
  • Building Principals creating co-teaching pairs that appeared incompatible or dysfunctional, and when asked about this, Special Services staff stated their inability to affect changes.
  • How can parents get more information and share their experiences to help one another navigate the various stages of the system and effectively advocate for their children.

It was noted that some of these issues fall under the SEPAC 2013-14 priorities formulated after 2012-13 meetings and shared with the District on October 7, 2013.  That letter will be shared with the SEPAC email list and posted on the SEPAC web site.

Other follow up items for SEPAC Executive Committee (and hopefully more volunteers) to take on before the group meets again are: 

  • Status of District’s Corrective Action Plan to address issues in the NJDOE Consolidated Monitory Report
  • Status of the Inclusion Committee
  • Creating a vehicle for parent feedback and input between SEPAC meetings
  • Review/revision of District Guide to Special Education with the goal of making it more user friendly

The meeting closed with a reiteration of the SEPAC goals for 2013 -2014

  1. Strengthened communications between parents, schools, administration and board (including a review of district/school web sites and the Guide to Special Education handbook);
  2. Better understanding of policies and practice in the area of school personnel (i.e. the role of the Child Study Team, the caseworker, the principal and the special education teacher);
  3. A review of district goals and the development of a District goal that specifically addresses students with special needs; and
  4. Ongoing education and advocacy in the areas of state and federal policies on special education.

SEPAC Letter to District Re: 2013-14 Priorities

October 7, 2013

Dear Brian, Pat, and Members of the Board of Education,

It is our pleasure to introduce ourselves as members of the newly formed Executive Committee of the South Orange/Maplewood Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC.) As some of you know, SEPAC held a series of formation meetings in 2012-13, during which we explored best practices from other districts, invited broad community input, and established our bylaws and guiding principles.

Last week, we reconvened to establish SEPAC’s 2013-14 agenda. During our research last year, we found that districts with the most engaged and effective SEPACs, were those in which parents, staff, and board came together as a working group, brought to bear their best thinking and resources, and kept the focus on big-picture issues to benefit all students. We are writing to share with you our goals for this school year and to invite representatives of the board of education and the district administration to join us at each meeting . We have four scheduled meetings this year: October 22, January 9, March 4, and May 5, each to be held at 7pm in the district board room.

The overall goal of a SEPAC is to strengthen the relationship between a school district and the parents of students with special needs, and to advocate for those students as well as to seek and offer suggestions in the area of special needs. We are grateful that Dr. Barker was able to come to our final meeting of the school year in the spring and share updates with us on the district policies and practice. In light of what we heard, and in response to our own discussions and experiences, we have agreed to focus on the following areas for this school year:

  • Strengthened communications between parents, schools, administration and board (including a review of district/school web sites and the Guide to Special Education handbook);
  • Better understanding of policies and practice in the area of school personnel (i.e. the role of the Child Study Team, the caseworker, the principal and the special education teacher);
  • A review of district goals and the development of a District goal that specifically addresses students with special needs; and
  • Ongoing education and advocacy in the areas of state and federal policies on special education.

We would welcome the opportunity to meet with representatives from the board, the administration, and specifically the department of special services in the near future to discuss these goals further. If possible, we would also like to establish opportunities for regular meetings and find ways to institutionalize the role of SEPAC in the District.

Thank you, and we look forward to working more closely with you all in the coming months.


Jane Bleasdale, President

Jenny Lindstrom, Vice President