NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk SPED Partners asked Norwalk Board of Education candidates to respond to questions focused on issues pertaining to special education at Norwalk Public Schools. The results were sent to NancyOnNorwalk Monday.
The Republican candidates – Sue Haynie, John Bazzano, Lauren Rosato and Artie Kassimis – sent a joint answer, as did the Norwalk Community Values Party candidates, Steve Colarossi and Andres Roman. Of the four Democratic candidates SPED Partners only provided a response from one, Shirley Mosby.
Here are the questions and answers:
Are you familiar with, and have you read in detail, the ‘Cambridge Report’ (2007), the ‘CREC I’ (2008) report, and the ‘CREC II’ (2012) reports? If so, what message do you believe that these reports were presenting to our education community?
Mosby: Yes, I am familiar with the reports. I served on the BOE from 2007-2009 when the Cambridge and the CREC I reports were commissioned. The reports called many issues to the attention of the community such as under-funding of the department from staffing issues (school psychologists) to instructional materials, inconsistencies amongst the schools in the PPT processes including the implementation of IEP’s, little communication with parents such as an effective web-site from which parents and staff could locate information, little staff development offered to regular and special education staff, frequent turn-over within the upper level of administration, and even the concern that the director might not have the autonomy needed to effectively run the department. Many of the concerns remain. The parents have done an outstanding job in working with the district to create a web-site and to institute a speakers’ series. As a BOE member, I will support the Superintendent’s initiatives in addressing the recommendations of the three reports.
Norwalk Community Values: The Cambridge Report provided ample evidence to support systematic change in the way that children with special needs are evaluated, highlighted the need for dramatic improvements in parent communications, corroborated the belief that there was little oversight in the department and substantiated the long-held belief that services were unfairly provided. CREC I, regrettably, confirmed the findings of the Cambridge Report and the failure of the school district to engage in the types of systematic changes that were needed and that our special needs students deserved.
Although the State Department of Education has indicated that Norwalk has made progress toward the goals of CREC I, the progress, in our opinion, has been insufficient. One area of progress has been the change in special education attorneys which Steve Colarossi initiated (through his efforts as then chairperson of the Finance Committee); in addition to saving money, the change in law firms helped heal a rift that had been developing between parents and the school district through the district’s past use of an overly aggressive law firm and the practice of needlessly stalling parents throughout due process (which had been cited by the State Department of Education).
CREC II failed to address the fundamental lack of true accountability in the Pupil Personnel Services Department of the Norwalk Board of Education. For example, rather than excuse the lack of budgetary insight of the former director, CREC II should have called for accountability from the director to assure (i) that the Board of Education is fully apprised of the department’s true financial needs and (ii) that there is oversight regarding all spending decisions to assure that services which are to be provided under IEP’s and 504 plans are fully funded and provided in a timely fashion.
Rather than excuse years of poor budgetary CREC II should have called for (as has Steve Colarossi) for investigation as to why student needs as presented in their education plans are not being accurately included in the budget.
Look at the conditions our special needs students faced at the start of the 2012-2013 school year when it was discovered that insufficient special education paraprofessionals had been budgeted to meet the needs specified in IEP’s which had been adopted. Yet, despite the cost to student learning caused by those types of delays, there was no accountability for that error and no attempt made to develop a plan to prevent those types of mistakes from occurring in the future.
Another issue that CREC II should have addressed, but did not, was the practice of providing cash benefits directly to families whose children have not received the services to which they were entitled. The payment of settlements by the by the Pupil Personnel Services Department (whether to resolve threatened or actual due process claims by families) is an indication that there is ineffective oversight. Steve Colarossi repeatedly requested that the PPS Director provide an analysis of the specific reasons for these payments and the supervisors to whom those students had been assigned. It is absolutely critical to determine if there is a need for a more efficient monitoring process, if there is a need for better training of administrative staff, and/or if there is a need for better coordination among school principals and PPS staff. Without this basic information, one cannot determine if there is a need for more management staff (to better monitor how services are provided) or for more clerical staff (to more accurately input the data relative to services from student education plans).
It is obvious that many of our families feel shut out of the process and feel overwhelmed by delays in responding to requests for services for their children. Although there has been some progress in this regard, the progress has been insufficient. We need to determine how we can better inform parents. We also must work toward the goal of providing more services to our students within our school district. By creating local programs for our special needs students, we will meet an important goal of creating the least restrictive learning environment for them, offer these students greater opportunities for social integration with their neighbors and peers and save these children from the drudgery of lengthy bus rides.
You see, the problem with relying upon CREC II is that its many deficiencies (from the tiny sample of families who were surveyed and the miniscule number of student records which were analyzed) obscures the needs that must be addressed. There must be greater efforts made to keep parents informed throughout the process when they are seeking services for their children and there must be greater accountability when services are delayed or not fully provided.
Republicans: Yes, we are familiar with the 2007 Cambridge Report(s)1, as well as the 2008 and 2012 CREC reports. All three are excellent reports. The reports were thorough, clear-eyed, fly-on-the-wall kind of reports, conducted by outside experts with no personal connections to the district. The reports had commendations for what was done well and recommendations for where improvements were warranted. All three reports indicated that there were serious organizational, managerial and cultural issues in NPS. The reports provided honest, baseline assessments that could be used, ideally, for continuous improvement and reflection.
An important distinction should be made between the 2007/2008 reports and the 2012 CREC report. As a NCLB district ‘in need of improvement’ for over 4 years, Norwalk was one of about a dozen districts that were mandated by the State DOE to hire Cambridge in 2007. The Cambridge report identified significant problem areas with one such area being special education, resulting in the 2008 CREC report. The 2012 CREC report, on the other hand, was commissioned by the former Norwalk leadership itself and not done under the threat of mandate or sanction. This distinction between being ‘mandated’ to make improvements and ‘choosing’ to make improvements is huge, a definition of reform by my standards. It is by choosing to reach, to inquire, to review, to assess and to face truths that a district changes from one that is ‘in need of improvement’ to one that is ‘high performing’. The 2012 CREC report provided NPS a roadmap, a tool to use to become ‘high performing.’
On February 5, 2013 the Hour ran a story entitled “Report: Norwalk Schools Fail to Improve Special Education Over 4 Years.” (NancyOnNorwalk had one on that topic, too.) Pursuant to the latest CREC Report, the Special Education department in Norwalk was described as being ‘lean and underfunded’. What plan do you have to ensure that our special ed and 504 students’ needs will be met and what specific initiatives to improve special education (including 504 plans) would you support in order to reverse this?
Mosby: I will work with the BOE and the Superintendent to establish appropriate policies and programs to support our students with needs. I am knowledgeable about the categories of special needs. I have advocated for families whose children have special needs. I promoted the recognition of special attentions for events such as ADHD Month even before it was popular to do so. As BOE members, we must work together with the administration to improve special education.
Norwalk Community Values: The first step in improving how we provide needed services to all our children (whether under 504 plans or IEP’s) must be to insist upon accountability by all in the system. No child should be denied critical services and no child should endure any delay in the start of services. This will require that the new director hold all PPS staff to strict accountability standards.
Furthermore, as we strive to improve how reading and writing skills are taught, it is imperative that the revised curriculum utilize leveled readers and incorporate strategies for differentiated instruction. The use of a single program with leveled readers will create a greater sense of inclusiveness for children of all abilities.
As mentioned in our answer to Question 1, Norwalk must make a greater effort to create some programs within the District to service the needs of children who are transported to out of district placements.
We must initiate consistent standards for timeliness of conducting evaluations and reviews of independent testing data so that students are not subjected to needless delay.
Furthermore, it is imperative that the progress which has been made in parent education be continued and that PPS staff continue to work toward an increasingly inclusive and collaborative approach when working with families.
We must absolutely insist that greater efforts are made in our schools to promote an awareness of students’ special needs (including those of medically-fragile students, those with learning disabilities and those with special emotional needs). Schools must be a refuge for these children in which they feel safe and valued by the entire school community, and in which parents are confident that their children are being provided the care and education they deserve in a nurturing and supportive environment. This has been an area that Steve Colarossi has worked extensively as Chairperson of the Board of Education’s Policy Committee. He wrote the straightforward guidelines to cut bureaucratic red-tape for families using service animals for their children and he wrote the adult-on-student bullying policy which can be used to safeguard special needs students.
Andres Roman supports these efforts and will work to be certain that these policies are implemented with fidelity.
Finally, by improving the budget process (such as by insisting that department heads are held accountable for providing accurate data to the Board of Education), we can assure that special education services are fully and adequately funded.
Republicans: Firstly, you need leadership at the Superintendent level. We are thrilled that we have hired such an action-oriented, think-outside-the-box, data-savvy Superintendent as Dr. Manny Rivera. Secondly, as you are very aware, the next level of leadership that NPS needs is the replacement of the directorship position recently vacated by Pauline Smith. Ms. Smith was a very capable SPED Director who was hamstrung by the embedded management structure. As Peg McDonald from CREC noted, the SPED director “made attempts to set vision, exercise oversight and promote best practice but limited authority hampered (her) efforts.” Ms. McDonald also noted further, when SPED administrators reorganized and tried to improve functions, their ‘instructional leadership was superseded by management activities’. This foundational issue need not and cannot continue. The new special ed director must not just have the accountability, but also the authority to do his/her job with the oversight of the Superintendent.
Are you familiar with what role ‘Paraprofessionals’ (or ‘Para educators’, Teacher’s Assistants, etc) play in our school system and classrooms? Are you aware that these crucial components of our special ed program receive little if any formal training? Are you aware that they need to only possess a high school equivalency diploma with no background in special education whatsoever? Are you in favor of a recommendation that all Para’s in or school system receive a uniform level of training before and while working with our most vulnerable students?
Mosby: Yes, I am aware that teacher assistants receive very little training. I know that staff development funds across the district have been severely reduced and very little professional development has been provided to most employees. I know that the district used a successful model to provide Common Core staff development for teachers. I support that same model for our special education teacher assistants in which key persons can be trained and then be dispersed into the schools to provide on-site staff development. I believe that each school must have persons on staff to support the teacher assistants with particular modules such as the role of a teacher assistant in implementing the recommendations of an IEP.
Norwalk Community Values: Yes, we are aware of the inconsistent hiring standards and professional development of paraprofessionals. Every employee who works with our children needs to have on-going professional development. Furthermore, we must strive to hire only highly-qualified staff. In addition, support staff in our schools that have direct involvement with special needs students (from intervention aides, to school nurses to housemasters and principals) must have included in their professional development increased training to improve their awareness of and sensitivity to the needs of all students.
Republicans: Yes, we are aware of the role para-professionals play in the school system and that they require no specialized training and only a high school diploma. Norwalk’s former Director, Pauline Smith, created training modules for the paras but had a difficult time ensuring uniformity, from what we understand, because the management of the paras fell under the purview of each school’s principal. We are in favor of a recommendation that all paras in the district have a uniform level of training that is overseen by, directed by and enforced by the special ed Director.
Are you in favor of requiring that special ed personnel receive sufficient levels of professional development in appropriate fields of study or review?
Mosby: Yes, I am in favor of regular education and special education personnel receiving appropriate levels of professional development. Regular and special education persons must work together to support our students.
Norwalk Community Values: On-going professional development is critical for all staff. In addition to providing particular professional development to special education staff, greater efforts must be made to educate all school staff to the needs of our special education students and to greater sensitivity of their educational, emotional and medical needs.
Republicans: Yes, most certainly. We know that a major concern and focus for Dr. Rivera is a long-term plan for professional development and training for all staff, including special education, funded, most likely, by corporate partners or foundations.
An extension of this also occurs at the hiring stage—the Human Resource department and BOE just began tracking all new hires to determine if they have taken and passed the Foundations of Reading test.
Are you willing to publicly support the adequate funding of these initiatives and programs?
Mosby: I am running on a platform to provide an excellent education for all students no matter their disability or other needs that may not be classified as a disability. I will support appropriate funding and program initiatives that are research based.
Norwalk Community Values: Andres Roman and Steve Colarossi have called for greater accountability in our budget process. Only by more accurately determining the needs of our special education students can Norwalk endeavor to fully fund the programs and staff (and training) critical to serving them. Steve Colarossi has publicly advocated for allocating school resources with a focus on student needs and not administrative wants. That is why he opposed the 2012-2013 budget which caused overcrowding in classrooms, eliminated elementary school intervention aides and stopped the team teaching model in the middle schools (although that cut was later restored). Although the impacts of these cuts were felt by all students, they had a particularly insidious impact on the needs of inclusively-educated special needs students by limiting classroom and school resources.
Future budgets must find ways to fully fund the needs of those students receiving special education services.
Republicans: Again, let’s go back to the CREC report. First we need to take care of those issues that are cost neutral and/or related to an improvement in organizational or managerial structures rather than additional dollars.
According to CREC 2012, a lack of balanced centralized/decentralized system causes ‘inefficient use of staff, inequities in service and resources and inconsistencies in processes.’ Diminished special ed central office decision making authority causes ‘ineffective professional development, inefficient use of resources, compliance issues and diminished program development.’ To continue with our current organizational and managerial structure is expensive and not particularly effective or efficient. Let’s look for changes here first.
Then, we need to define what adequate funding means and what is needed for NPS.
According to CREC 2012, as of 2010/11, 18.8% or $28,8Million, of the BOE Operating Budget was for special ed. But, 16% or $4.7Million, of that special ed budget ‘pie’ went for items that aren’t ‘typically’ included in a special education budget, such as guidance counselors and school nurses. The Connecticut Department of Education does not define the way these costs are budgeted so some districts include them in their special ed budget, some don’t. But, trying to compare any special ed line item by cost across Connecticut’s 169 districts is near difficult to impossible, not to mention that the most current data on the State DOE site dates back to 2010.
Locally, special education costs can be found in 20 different locations in the Norwalk BOE Budget Book– each of the 19 schools and central office have their own costs associated with special ed. And, different departments within central office handle different parts of special ed or 504, each with their own resultant costs. Improving the reporting of and ease of access to the local special ed budget, once our strategic 3-year budget plan is complete and with the help of a new Director of PPS, would help us determine, make sense of and justify additional expenditures.
Finally, a re-looking at Pauline Smith’s plan for an in-house Pre-K program for children with autism spectrum disorders would be of value. However, this would be a cost intensive initiative so strategic planning and budgeting would be required.