Board Considers Special Ed Ideas – But Won't Merge Schools

by Melany Gray

(February 13, 2008) Early in the fall, Mamaroneck’s new assistant superintendent for student support services, Dr. Anthony Minotti, told parents that he would be arranging to have consultants examine the district’s special education practices to determine what was working and what could be done better. The result was a seventy-page report prepared by Education & Management Services, Inc., which was paid for by a federal grant and presented at the school board meeting Tuesday night by consultants Dr. Janet Derby and Joseph Fenaughty.

Special School Board Meeting on Bond

The board will be meeting in the Mamaroneck High School tiered classroom on Wednesday, February 27 at 7:30 pm to discuss the timing and scope of the proposed bond for capital projects and field work. (See: Mam'k School Board Closing In On Major Bond Decision.)

The report represented the culmination of six months work, during which the consultants “saw virtually every class in special education” as well as some regular education classrooms. The consultants also met with the board of the Special Education Parent Teacher Association (SEPTA), surveyed students and staff, and reviewed the New York State Student Report Card as well as district policies, plans and student data.

Improving “Disconnectedness”

For the 2006-2007 school year, 13.4% of the district’s students enrolled in public school were classified as disabled (excluding pre-K students). The district operates a continuum of services for these students.

Many of the recommendations offered related to the level of “disconnectedness” between the various programs. The consultants’ report observed that “[t]here are good practices, as well as excellent teaching and innovative ideas in the district – but, in general, staff members do not have knowledge of what is happening elsewhere.”
The consultants suggested that the disconnectedness they observed might be remedied if programs, special classes and services were better defined, with clearly delineated entrance and exit criteria, and if common terminology was used in all buildings. They noted that “serious work” needed to be done to improve the quality of instruction and opportunities for professional development, observing that “there is time in the school day when staff is in school, but cannot be assigned a duty.” Recognizing that contract negotiations were ongoing, the report recommended “the addition of time for common planning and that it be dedicated and assigned for collaboration.”

A significant area of concern addressed was the extent to which younger students who require services are often moved from elementary school to elementary school, as different schools house different programs in different years due to space constraints and enrollment fluctuations.

Reducing Out-of-District Placements

Out-of-district placements were another area of concern. The law requires that certain students be educated out of district when their needs cannot be accommodated in their home district.

The consultants noted that district review of this issue, as well as many of the other issues they identified, is already underway. Although the state encourages schools to keep out-of-district placements to five percent or less of all students classified, Mamaroneck placed sixty students with disabilities outside of the district in 2006-2007, which represented 8.7% of classified students. Tuition expenses for students who receive special education services through these placements have increased and comprised thirty percent of the special education budget last year. The report noted that “[i]f the district’s continuum of services was more comprehensive and consistent it is more likely more students in outside placements could be accommodated in district programs at the secondary level.”

Having a larger population in district would not only be more cost-effective, but might also make it possible to keep more elementary students in their home schools. In addition, having more students who require particular services in a particular building would enable specialists to “push in” to classrooms to work with students, rather than pulling them out of their regular classrooms for extra help.

Further Observations and Recommendations

Numerous additional recommendations were made, including that classified students be given more opportunities to study foreign language, that a district-wide handwriting program be implemented, and that a “technology plan” be instituted to assure adequate training so that assistive technology purchased by the district could be used to its full advantage. The consultants also proposed that the two directors of special education, Roni Kramer for Pre-K through 5th grade and Gail Boyle for secondary schools, dedicate all their time to supervising and supporting instructional and support staff. It was not clear, however, who would chair Committee on Special Education (CSE) meetings if this recommendation were to be adopted.

The consultants noted that the district generally did a good job in developing Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) for classified students and with the CSE process and praised the district staff overall. In addition, inclusion classrooms at Central School were highlighted as a model that should be utilized as a “training ground” for district staff.

The consultants analyzed program costs associated with special education and determined that when compared to other Westchester districts of similar size, Mamaroneck had the third lowest cost per student at $19,639. Only Katonah ($17,618) and Lakeland ($17,854) had lower costs per pupil. In contrast, Scarsdale spent $31,913 per pupil for special education and White Plains spent $26,219.

Community and District Response

Community members who attended the meeting raised a number of questions about the suggestion that a two-tier CSE process be implemented, with a district-wide committee created to review referrals and/or placements made by building-level committees.

Also controversial was the consultants’ suggestion that Mamaroneck Avenue School (MAS) become a primary (pre-K through 2nd grade) school for students from the current MAS and Central School districts, and Central School serve as an intermediate school (grades 3-5) for those same neighborhoods. Community members felt that the reasons for the recommendation were not well articulated and did not take into account the culture of the community. Dr. Minotti noted afterwards that the recommendation would not be considered at this time, explaining that “there are many other practices that we can implement to address special education services in those schools.”

Amy Levere, the school board president, affirmed Dr. Minotti’s conclusion, describing the proposal to combine the school districts as “a gigantic philosophical change that would take a great deal of study. It is not something that we are prepared to do now.”
Both Ms. Levere and Dr. Minotti noted that the MAS-Central proposal was but one of many recommendations offered by the consultants. Dr. Minotti praised the report as an “opportunity for collective inquiry,” echoing comments made earlier by Ms. Boyle, who reflected that even recommendations the district would not pursue were valuable because they encouraged “thinking out of the box.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, a Chatsworth parent spoke movingly about difficulties her daughter had experienced the year before. She explained that “mainstream parents are involved and could be better informed.” She encouraged the district to remember that “regular education parents are stakeholders” in the special education process. Dr. Minotti thanked her, adding that he was working on improving communication with all parents about issues relating to special education and that he would be meeting with representatives from the various PTA groups to discuss this further.

Next steps, according to Dr. Minotti, will be to meet with staff on the superintendent’s conference day in March to discuss the recommendations. Many goals will be addressed through the budget process with a shifting of resources.

After the meeting, SEPTA’s president, Amy Lieberman, noted that many of the issues raised by the consultants are already being addressed by Dr. Minotti and his staff. Said Ms. Lieberman: “The report serves to confirm in many ways what we already had identified as areas of focus, as described by Dr. Minotti in the November 2007 issue of Special EDition, the SEPTA newsletter.” (See SEPTA website and also: New Assistant Superintendent Opens Up with SEPTA.)

Melany Gray is co-president of the MHS PTSA.