Superintendent Proposes Special Education Self Study
In response to parent concerns expressed at the August 14 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue presented a proposal for a special education self-study at the board’s meeting on September 4.
The school board held off voting on whether it would support the proposal in order to receive more information about the potential self-study.
Board members anticipate voting on whether to support the proposal at its next meeting, slated for Tuesday, September 18. At its August 14 meeting, parents outlined complaints regarding practices and accommodations for special education students, mostly for students with dyslexia. Some of the complaints described alleged incidents of having confidential student information sent to other families. (A further look at some of the parent concerns is available here.)
Parents spoke at the end of the September 4 meeting to further address concerns and explain efforts some have made since the August 14 meeting to establish an online petition.
Before outlining the proposal on September 4, Dr Rodrigue said there is a difference between individual concerns related to specific students, which she said are normally handled by district staff, and areas that can be addressed “globally, systemically.”
“Our goal specifically is to identify areas that we can improve in the best interest of students and families, and I think that is integral to everything we do and why we are here this evening,” said Dr Rodrigue.
The superintendent shared that she recently expressed to staff members that if at the end of the self-study, the district learns of new resources or changes to practices that can lend support, then “we should all embrace this.” She also said the district has “great confidence” in its administrators and staff and that confidence is not diminished “by looking at what we do.
“Being self-reflective and taking a moment to look at what we do and what we can improve... that’s okay, and we should be doing that every day,” Dr Rodrigue added.
The superintendent also said that following the August 14 meeting, the district “took some immediate steps” around programs, practices, and perceptions. Letters were sent home to families to let them know the district is working on resolutions.
The proposed self-study, Dr Rodrigue explained, would hire “impartial outside consultants who can facilitate the gathering of feedback from stakeholders.” The study would be designed to augment information the district already collects from stakeholders, and it would review themes that evolve to take a systemic approach to improvements.
Gail Mangs and Maria Synodi submitted the proposal for the self-study, according to a proposal document shared at the meeting. It was noted after the meeting that Ms Mangs and Ms Synodi have worked for the Connecticut Department of Education and the Bureau of Special Education. The proposal outline states that the self-study would include two parent forums, meetings with supervisory personnel, and an analysis of information. The self-study would cost $10,500, which district Business Director Ron Bienkowski said would be covered by the professional services portion of the 2018-19 special education budget, if the board approves the proposal.
“I do believe this is something extremely worthwhile and makes a lot of sense given not only the nature of the concerns that have come up, but it also aligns with some of our natural goals for continuous improvement in the district,” Dr Rodrigue said.
Board of Education Vice Chair Rebekah Harriman-Stites thanked Dr Rodrigue for her immediate action following the concerns voiced at the August 14 meeting.
After board member John Vouros asked about the timing of the self-study, Dr Rodrigue said that would depend on how quickly the board approves the process.
“Once it is approved, I would want a quick turnaround,” Dr Rodrigue said, adding that scheduling of meetings would determine the timing for the study.
After board members raised concerns and suggestions, Chair Michelle Embree Ku said the proposal would be brought forward for a formal vote at the board’s next meeting.
Near the end of the meeting, parents spoke during public participation.
Parent Michelle Pranger explained she has enjoyed her experiences with the district for her two regular education children, but she described frustrations and disappointments concerning her special education child’s schooling.
“I’m here because I have sat by, I’ve supported him, I have called out for help with the school district, and... I don’t feel as though I am being heard,” said Ms Pranger.
Ms Pranger said far too many special education needs are not being met appropriately in the district.
“The education gaps continue to widen year after year,” said Ms Pranger, adding that the gaps never seem to close.
She asked the board to consider the men and women the special education children will grow up to be, and she said the district has failed the children because their needs “dared” to be more than “the allotted [special education] budget.”
“We’re here today because we are the voice of our children. We will not allow them to be marginalized,” said Ms Pranger, who had prepared a statement for the evening.
As Ms Pranger’s statement was longer than the school board’s requested three minute time limit for public participation, she agreed to submit her statement to the board directly. Before concluding, Ms Pranger said the board members are elected to help be a voice for parents. She also spoke of e-mails that she has had with district administrators that “would go viral” if posted online.
Parent Jennifer Strychalsky thanked Dr Rodrigue for the proposed self-study and added that the staff at Middle Gate Elementary School, where her child attends school, is “incredible.”
“Having said that, after the last meeting, as you can imagine, the court of public opinion has been horrible to the parents...” said Ms Strychalsky, adding that the parents are not “attacking the district” but are instead trying to get lawful educational supports for their children.
Parent Liza Mecca said she could not “wrap my head around” how, aside from the proposed self-study, “there has been zero action” since the August 14 meeting.
“There have been breaches in confidentiality for years,” Ms Mecca said. Later, she added, “We have a responsibility to these children, especially vulnerable ones, to keep their records private and not be lazy.”
Ms Mecca said she believes a self-study is an excellent long-term “game plan,” but she said there are parents with concerns now.
“It just does not help the distrust that many of us have,” said Ms Mecca.
Parent Alissa Heizler-Mendoza explained an online petition was started roughly three weeks ago.
“There are 350 signatures on this petition,” Ms Heizler-Mendoza said. “You can read it on your own. [They are mainly based] in Connecticut.”
Ms Heizler-Mendoza read some of the statements submitted for the petition that described experiences with Newtown. The petition is online at thepetitionsite.com by searching for “Newtown CT Board of Education: Investigate the Practices of Newtown Special Education Department.”
“This is a systemic issue, and I appreciate you putting a thorough plan of action together, and I am also quite disappointed in the last three weeks there hasn’t been more done,” said Ms Heizler-Mendoza.
Other parents shared accounts of their children’s struggles during the public participation. As the last parent to speak, Julia Conlin said, “I think families really want more from you than a punt, and I hope that is not what this is.”
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