SOMA Board of Ed Candidates Weigh In on Special Education

by The Village Green
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Recently, the Executive Board of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC) invited the nine candidates for three seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education to respond to three questions related to special education in the district. Below is the SEPAC Executive Board statement followed by the responses from the candidates. 

We are pleased to share with you these 2015 Board of Education candidate statements on special education. We thank all the candidates who responded for taking the time to share their perspectives.

SEPAC is not a political organization, and it does not endorse candidates in any election. This presentation is intended solely to assist voters by presenting candidate views on issues related to special education. The views expressed herein are the candidates’ own, and they do not reflect any input from SEPAC or its Executive Board.

All nine candidates were invited to provide statements in the form of responses to three questions:

  1. What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education?
  2. In your view, what has the district done well in recent years, and what would you want to see as priorities for improvement?
  3. What are the greatest challenges facing special education in SOMA, and what specific policies and programs would you propose or modify to enhance the quality of special education, while considering the financial impacts on the district?

We encourage you to reach out to individual candidates with any questions regarding their responses, and we encourage you to share this presentation with community members who might have an interest in special education. An electronic copy will be available on SEPAC’s website at somsepac.org.

But most importantly, we encourage all eligible voters to get out and vote on TUESDAY, November 3 between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.

To locate your polling place, you can use the NJ Dept. of State website here. 

Sincerely,
The SEPAC Executive Board

 

 

Wayne Eastman

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education?

As a board member since 2006 who has dealt with many special education program and funding issues, and as a parent of a child who had an IEP for a number of years, I have substantial background experience relating to special education. Currently, I am very interested in how special education parents and students can be a key part of what I see as a transformative moment in the district. With our new Superintendent, our upcoming educational summit, and our newly introduced policy on access and choice, we are in a position to create a new culture for the South Orange-Maplewood schools. One way to think about that culture is in terms of universalizing the special education model of individualized education to apply to all students. To make that work, the ideas and participation of the special education community will be critical.

In your view, what has the district done well in recent years, and what would you want to see as priorities for improvement? 

I believe the district has shown a commendable willingness to learn and to try new things in regard to special education. The Montrose early learning center is a reflection of that innovative spirit. So, too, is the district’s focus in recent years on early reading skills, along with the district’s creative response to stimulus funding in the form of additional inclusion teachers. On all these initiatives and in the rest of our work, we need to do better in hitting our marks, and in working together as a team. With our new Superintendent and new special education leadership, I’m optimistic about our prospects for improvement in our operations and in our teamwork going forward.

What are the greatest challenges facing special education in SOMA, and what specific policies and programs would you propose or modify to enhance the quality of special education, while considering the financial impacts on the district?

As a district, we face truly formidable financial challenges, as reflected in our business administrator Cheryl Schneider’s projection of a potential budget deficit of up to $20 million. The special education community will be a key source of ideas on how we can maintain or improve the quality of special education in SOMA in our straitened fiscal circumstances. My central aspiration is that our new policy on access, equity, and choice can serve as a catalyst for our working together ways in which we can collaboratively reshape special education and general education so the two overlap and permeate one another to a greater extent than they now do. To put the point in terms of my family’s own experience with special education: Although I am fundamentally happy with that experience, I believe that an access-oriented culture that recognized my child’s special needs and skills and provided choices for him and for us without having the whole apparatus of testing and classification involved might well have been even better. I’m excited by the prospect of working together with our Superintendent, Madhu, Peggy, other board colleagues, the special education community, and other stakeholders to make a culture of access and choice a reality for our district.

  

Peggy Freedson

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education?

It is my pleasure to be running for the Board of Education on a ticket with current BOE President Wayne Eastman, and board Vice-President Madhu Pai. My husband and I reside in South Orange with our two children – Sammy who is a 10th grader at Columbia High School, and Ava who is a 3rd grader at South Mountain Elementary. We have lived here for 10 years.

A commitment to students with special needs is central to my vision for our schools and to my work as a professional educator. I began my career as an elementary teacher with the Los Angeles Public Schools where I taught primarily children from immigrant and second language backgrounds. Through this work I learned the profound responsibility I had to connect with and ensure the learning of each of my students, who included children with IEPs and children with disabilities not yet identified. I became familiar with the procedures for supporting students and their families through the process of intervention and referral, participated in Child Study Team meetings, and saw first-hand how emotional, at times frustrating and, when handled with professionalism and sensitivity by staff, transformative these processes could be.

Since 2003 I have been an education professor at Montclair State University where I prepare preschool and elementary teachers in language development and the teaching of reading. With a focus on inclusive education practices, I train teachers to understand a range of language-related disabilities and to use best practices to support struggling readers and children with dyslexia. I am dedicated to ensuring we provide explicit instruction in phonics and other core literacy skills, as I believe that our district’s current elementary language arts curriculum does not adequately address the needs of all children. I have been fortunate to work with teachers and staff at Montclair State’s demonstration preschool, recognized as a model of early childhood inclusive education, and I am committed to building on the partnership SOMA has established with the university to bring this model successfully to the new Montrose Early Learning Center. I am optimistic that this center will be a place where young children with special needs can thrive.

In your view, what has the district done well in recent years, and what would you want to see as priorities for improvement? 

I believe that the district has shown great willingness to explore and take-up best practices in inclusive education, through the expansion of the co-teaching model and through the establishment of the new Early Learning Center. As a reading educator, I am also pleased to see the early intervention program that has been put in place to support struggling readers in grades K-3. I also commend the district for providing high-quality dyslexia training to teaching staff. My priorities for improvement include:

  • Improved communications and adherence to procedures at all levels to ensure that parents are guided and supported through the referral and classification process, that students’ IEP and 504 recommended modifications are provided consistently, and that problems and concerns are swiftly and appropriately addressed without parents having to tirelessly advocate for these services.
  • On-going professional development for teachers in differentiated instruction and how best to scaffold learning for students with a range of abilities and needs. I would also like to see PD that introduces principles of Universal Design for Learning – an approach to front-loading differentiation at the planning stage so that all students can access the curriculum in every subject through multiple pathways within an inclusive classroom setting.
  • Explicit teaching of study and organization skills within the context of core subject classes leading up to and throughout the middle school years.
  • Continued expansion of reading/literacy interventions to support our struggling readers in grades 4-12. I would like us to consider adding use of System 44 – a technology enhanced reading intervention program that focuses on phonics and other foundational skills, – to precede the later support we provide using the READ 180 program.

What are the greatest challenges facing special education in SOMA, and what specific policies and programs would you propose or modify to enhance the quality of special education, while considering the financial impacts on the district?

As a new candidate, I am continuing to learn the specifics of policies currently in place, where we can most effectively strengthen or shift policy, and the budgetary implications of these decisions. Clearly our district’s projected $20 million budget deficit presents an enormous challenge. Enhancing the overall quality and effectiveness of our curriculum and instruction for all students – particularly during the foundational preschool and elementary years – is essential to prevent the identification of students for special services who may simply need more targeted classroom support. I think finding ways to address the needs of our special education students in grades 6-12 requires particular attention – and I will make it a priority to ensure that students struggling in reading or math are not deprived of opportunities for science and social studies enrichment experiences and arts education. I would encourage the district to actively recruit the best graduates from our universities’ Dual Certification programs so that eventually, every SOMA classroom is staffed by a teacher trained in both their primary certification area and in teaching students with disabilities. This will be fiscally prudent and enhance student engagement and learning. Finally, I am excited by the new Access and Equity policy that Wayne and Madhu have been instrumental in developing and advancing, as it removes barriers of access to high-level, challenging coursework for all students. I am committed to ensuring this policy is successfully implemented and that we closely monitor how students with IEPs and 504s are supported to reach their highest potential. 

 

Dorcas Lind

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education?

I am a 13-year resident of Maplewood and the mother of a rising Kindergartner and 4th grader enrolled in Clinton Elementary School. I am ready to listen, learn and work with parents and schools to bring about meaningful and effective change that supports all schools and students in the district – particularly those with unique and special learning needs. I come from a line of educators within the NYC school system, teaching a range of subjects including, language arts, Kindergarten, and Special Education. My mother was a highly sought out Special Ed paraprofessional who dedicated 36 years of her career to empowering children with special needs and their families. Growing up I listened to family members debating issues of  inclusion, equity, and access to educational experiences specifically  for special needs children in NYC . During those years, I learned the critical importance of communication and strategy in finding common ground, securing consensus, and achieving shared goals in a vastly diverse and complex educational system. I grew to apply these insights into my academic and professional career with a focus on public health and health education with an eye towards social justice.

Professionally, I serve as President & Founder of Diversity Health Communications, a consultancy focused on diversity and inclusion and health care communications for multicultural and underserved populations. A key focus of my career has been the development and implementation of clinical trial recruitment programs to educate patients about ethical and informed consent in medical research. Some of my most important work included eight years of patient recruitment into pediatric ADHD trials leading up to the approval and launch of an important medication in current ADHD therapy options. My work in ADHD infused a strong interest in how special needs children are handled and supported across the district, taking into account the complex mix of academic, health and behavioral challenges.

In your view, what has the district done well in recent years, and what would you want to see as priorities for improvement? 

Over the past several years the needs of special education children and families in the SOMSD have shifted. Unfortunately, for those parents who have been in the system for some time with multi-age kids, patterns have emerged with the same complaints and frustrations continuing to exist after months and years of the same discussions and debates. These issues include access, consistency, classroom/case  management, training and zoning to name a few. When the district made a concerted effort in the past decade to expand inclusion classrooms and adopt a co-teaching approach, special needs children and general education students had the opportunity to experience significantly more inclusion allowing for enhanced learning and exposure within the classroom setting. Outside of this effort to place special needs students in the least restrictive environment for best academic outcomes, there continues to be significant, entrenched challenges in parents’ ability to get the support and resources they need without the threat of litigious intervention. There certainly has to be a better way for special needs students and their families to receive equity across the district and within the classroom.

What are the greatest challenges facing special education in SOMA, and what specific policies and programs would you propose or modify to enhance the quality of special education, while considering the financial impacts on the district?

Below is a preliminary list of issues and recommendations I would propose if I were to be elected to the board:

  1. Communication and transparency of special education information, rules, policies: Ensure a building by building action plan that takes into account all types of families and unique needs
  2. Inconsistencies in Case Management: This should not be individually based or luck of the draw. Under the leadership of the Director of Special Services, all case managers should meet a set of criteria in order to serve families: Enhanced policies around case management best practices including onboarding and training, and a simplified path for non-English speaking parents who need support in understanding their rights and the special education laws set forth by the state.
  3. Inclusion classroom management: Through already existing training and professional development programs, incorporate content for general education teachers in differentiated learning environments and behavioral interventions.

These are just a few of the starting points and my goal will be to collaborate with the board and our community to find meaningful solutions. If elected to the board I will not shy away from controversial issues and consistently aim to bring full transparency to current and future challenges in special education.

  

 

Annemarie Maini

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education?

For the last eight years, I have run the South Orange Country Day School, a Montessori preschool in South Orange and transformed it from a teacher-directed, one-size-fits-all approach to the child-centered approach we use today.

In that time, I’ve learned a lot about childhood development and the fact that many learning disabilities are not necessarily permanent conditions if children receive interventions (the earlier the better) that provide them with successful coping skills. I’ve also learned that we need to think of children with challenges not as “special needs children” but as children who happen to have specific challenges. Attaching labels to children is one of the most pernicious things that happen in modern education.

Sometimes in our district, it takes way too long for parents to get the services that their children need. Because I know their children well, I have been asked by current and former SOCDS parents for help as they struggled to convince the district that their children were entitled to be classified and receive appropriate services. In response to these requests, I have written letters and/or attended meetings with district staff to help those parents.

If elected, I intend to push for the district to adopt a child-centered approach to education, so that we learn to see every child as an individual, emphasize the importance of positive relationships and engagement between teachers and all their children and ensure that from the first day of school, we are seeking to understand each child’s unique strengths and challenges.

I am running for the Board with Chris Sabin, who shares my view that the district must improve the way it engages with families and children. If elected, we intend, among other things, to work to:

  • Put an end to the frustrating roadblocks too often encountered by parents of classified children and those with 504 plans when they try to ensure that promised services are actually provided;
  • Ensure that the District’s provision of inclusion class settings for special needs students complies with the law and is consistent with educational best practices;
  • Ensure that academic intervention efforts from K-12 are timely and aggressive, with staffing always matched to actual needs, seeking to ensure that all students are reading on grade level by third grade or, for older students, within 18 months of transferring into our District;
  • Empower teachers to raise issues with the confidence that their suggestions will get full and fair consideration up the chain of command;
  • Support parental “right to know” and make full transparency a top priority in communications regarding District policies, placement criteria and the academic and disciplinary decision-making processes.

For more detail, see our campaign platform at https://www.maini-sabin-2015.com/#!our-campaign-platform/cffq.

When we make specific efforts, like reading interventions, we must be thoughtful in how we approach them and make sure that they are responsive to the needs of each child. In that regard, I worry that some of our reading interventions, which see phonics as the single best approach, delay getting at a child’s real issues. All children learn differently, in particular when learning to read, especially when they have specific learning disabilities.

In your view, what has the district done well in recent years, and what would you want to see as priorities for improvement? 

Some of our child-study teams and special education teachers do a marvelous job with students. Many of our regular classroom teachers are good at making classified children a full part of the classroom experience.   Some of our principals work to see that their school’s Response to Intervention (RTI) committees are effective. But these successes are not consistent throughout the district.

We must change this by ensuring that the Department of Special Services effectively manages and monitors what happens in every school and that all principals are fully trained. The Board must charge the Superintendent with ensuring that all principals have RTI committees that function well. Most importantly, we must ensure that we identify our best practices and make them the norm in every class.

That requires more training for all teachers on understanding the impacts of specific disabilities and the best approaches to help children cope with them. More importantly, it demands a child-centered approach where teachers learn to see each child as a unique individual, instead of attaching labels to him or her.

I was heartened when the district introduced its inclusion model over five years ago, and disheartened as the staffing was cut back to the point where we are in many cases no longer serving children well. We must fix that.

Overall, the district is not doing well. It is one of 76 districts in NJ that are the subject of a court finding in March of 2014 that requires state assessment, intervention and monitoring to improve efforts to see that children are educated in the “least restrictive environment.” The district was cited in two of the three categories (“students from 6-21” and “disproportionality by race”). See https://www.inclusioncampaign.org. There is not much evidence that the district is addressing these concerns. If elected, Chris Sabin and I will fight to make this a top district priority.

What are the greatest challenges facing special education in SOMA, and what specific policies and programs would you propose or modify to enhance the quality of special education, while considering the financial impacts on the district?

We must always be aware of costs when proposing improvements in district programs, but we must scrupulously avoid making costs a primary consideration when deciding whether those improvements are necessary to meet children’s needs, especially when meeting those needs is mandated by law.

The biggest challenge facing special education in our district is that it is too often mentioned in the same breath as “controlling costs”. The report of the District Management Council is an example. They focused too much on “efficiencies.” We must avoid the tendency to look at areas of our programs where there is the greatest need and see only “possible efficiencies.”

In the interests of children, we must learn to deliver all our programs, including special services, more effectively. If we do that, cost savings will follow.

In particular, I feel that:

  • 504 accommodations should be seamless so that children don’t feel like they’re made the subject of special attention. Parents should not have to monitor classroom practices to ensure their children receive what’s promised. Principals should do that. At a district level, we need to insure that classroom teachers are fully trained and receive the systemic supports needed to provide the accommodations required.
  • Once a child is classified or a 504 accommodation is granted, we must not allow district personnel to act as gatekeepers and pick and choose which of the agreed services are actually provided. That is and is harmful to children and a violation of the law and I just won’t stand for it!

And gatekeepers cannot disagree with the accommodations.  For example a child should be able to use a factor chart when working with fractions until that child memorizes or sees the need to memorize their multiplication facts.

This year, with the opening of the Montrose pre-school program, we have an opportunity to improve services for a number of classified children who would normally be sent out-of-district and at the same time save the cost of transportation. The Board needs to make sure that program is implemented well to accomplish both those objectives.

  

 

Elissa Malespina

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education?

I have been an educator for 17 years. Nine of those years were spent as an educator in the South Orange-Maplewood School District where I routinely worked with special education students. I worked closely with the special education teachers to make sure that library lessons I taught were differentiated to meet the needs of the students. I also was the first librarian in the district to set aside time just for the MD students to come into the library. My library was seen as a model of how to work with and help special education and at-risk students in the district. I was also always put in charge of administering standardized testing to students with 504s because the administration knew that I had the knowledge and expertise to deal with these students. Previous to working in SOMSD, I spent a year at Washington Academy, a private special education school, working with Autistic and ED students. I’ve experienced our district’s handling of special education not only as a staff member but also as a parent of a child who has received special education services through the district beginning with the ELLI pre-school program and at varying levels since then.

Our priority for students who require special services should be no different than it is for every other student in our district – it is our job to provide a safe, nurturing and well-equipped environment in which our students can do their best work. That is what the law states and what we as a district should be doing for our students.

In your view, what has the district done well in recent years, and what would you want to see as priorities for improvement? 

My son was part of the first class of the ELLI pre-school program. We had a wonderful case worker who was very engaged and responsive. The program was wonderful for our son, helping him overcome his speech issues as well as fine motor skills and provided a great basis for his future education. The teachers, therapists, aides – everyone involved was dedicated, responsive and devoted to the singular goal of providing each student with the tools and support he or she needed to succeed. Because my son received services at such a young age, he was able to be removed from special education in second grade.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the district has been much less agile and much less responsive. I’ve experienced it in my interactions regarding accommodations for my sons 504 for his ADHD. As an educator, I’ve seen the frustration it causes for parents, students and teachers when it seems like the district is putting up road-blocks rather than paving a smooth path. At times our special education students appear to be an afterthought. This was evident to me at the beginning of this school year when the accommodations agreed upon at the end of last school year were not even on the radar when he returned to school this month. His teachers weren’t even provided with his 504 plans until weeks into the new year. It was not until repeated emails and phone calls to administration that I even got a response as to why the computer he was suppose to be given was not given to him. This needs to change!

We must be more responsive and more proactive across the board, and especially when it comes to special education students. There must be a more cohesive method of tracking 504s and IEPs and making sure everyone is on the same page, with programmed checkpoints throughout the school-year. Parents and teachers should not have to send e-mail after e-mail and make a million phone calls just to get the district to follow-through on what they were supposed to do.

What are the greatest challenges facing special education in SOMA, and what specific policies and programs would you propose or modify to enhance the quality of special education, while considering the financial impacts on the district?

The number of students in SOMA requiring special services continues to grow, and we need to look at ways to keep those students in district and bring as many students currently in out-of-district placement back if we have the services available to give them the education they need.

Highly trained and qualified Paraprofessionals are key to the success of our special-education programs. A number of years ago SOMSD outsourced these jobs as a cost-cutting measure. I immediately saw first hand a huge drop in the quality of services provided. Many times other teachers and I caught Paraprofessionals not paying attention, texting, and actually sleeping on the job. This never happened with the dedicated on-staff workers the outsourcing had replaced. Even with numerous complaints to administration from parents and teachers, nothing has changed. This is not acceptable, and we must look for ways to bring back our Paraprofessionals.

We also need to re-examine caseloads for our child study teams to see if there is a way to lighten some of the load for these dedicated professionals who are at times are way overworked.

At the core, we must get back to the basics and follow the laws set by the IEPS. Our settlement costs skyrocket because we are not following what we need to do by law. Its very simple- do what you are required to do by law, and lawsuits decline, which in turn leads to us having more money.

 

 

Madhu Pai

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education?

I hope my actions as a Board of Education member over these last three years have made clear my dedication to special education students. I have listened and advocated for special education students through my unwavering desire to address the special education achievement gap, by supporting programs like Montrose Early Learning Center, encouraging dialogue with the special education community as decisions were being made with regard to hiring the District Management Council, and through my critical analysis of the engagement with, and work performed by, the DMC. I have spoken to many of you personally and I will continue to always be ready to engage with you. With a policy on access and equity in front of us, I believe we have the opportunity to re-imagine and re-create how we educate students in this district. I look forward to working with the special education community as we embark on this important work.

In your view, what has the district done well in recent years, and what would you want to see as priorities for improvement? 

The district has made some positive strides in looking for ways to reduce special education referrals and out of district placements through the elementary reading intervention program and the opening of the Montrose Early Learning Center. However, I do see opportunity to focus specifically on current special education students in-district reach to help them reach their full potential:

  • Make more inroads on the special education achievement gap through enhanced scaffolding and interventions beyond the pre-school program. For example, the loss of the conference period in middle school hurts the special education students disproportionately, especially in 8th grade where there is no WIN period to fall back on for interventions. I am already looking into solutions for this within the Equity & Excellence committee.
  • Fix the basics like ensuring that there is proper communication and consistency at the district and building level about how IEP and 504 accommodations will be honored.
  • Hire and retain strong teachers with dual teaching certificates in general and special education, and provide them with ongoing training. This will enable us to be more fluid and able to allocate resources to special education students as the need arises.
  • Forge productive partnerships so that parents don’t have to “work so hard” to get the supports they need for their students. With new leadership in place, I believe we have a real opportunity to re-set the tenor of the conversations and relationships between district staff and parents.

What are the greatest challenges facing special education in SOMA, and what specific policies and programs would you propose or modify to enhance the quality of special education, while considering the financial impacts on the district?

The greatest challenge facing special education is a potential $20million budget deficit. The current access and equity policy will enable us to define how we will re-create opportunities for both special education and general education students. The timing is well aligned as budget discussions are starting up now. We have to approach this work with the mindset of creating infrastructure and programs that are beneficial to all groups of students. The recent schedule changes at the middle school are a reminder that we are not always approaching change with this mindset now. Open access to higher-level classes is a win for all students, but especially students who currently face barriers due to special education classifications. I believe that we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us with the access and equity policy, and we need to ensure we have all voices and experiences at the table as we define how to bring it to life. Wayne, Peggy and I are excited to take on this work and are committed to ensuring your voices are heard.

 

 

Marian Raab

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education?

Before I even graduated from law school, I took an interest in special education issues. During the last semester of my legal studies, I enrolled in a special education seminar and learned how the rights of students with disabilities in the United States were—more often than not—violated by many public school districts.

I also learned about the three pillars of special education law in the Unites States: every child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

Little did I know how important that seminar and that legal training would be to me when my youngest son started showing evidence of developmental delays in speech and motor skills at the age of two. He is now a 3rd grader at the Tuscan Elementary School and it has been a constant struggle to get my son the services he needs and is entitled to from the South Orange-Maplewood School District.

I know personally the struggles that most of our district’s special education families have gone through to get the basic services they are entitled to under federal and state laws because my family has gone through them too. If elected to the Board of Education, I will bring my legal knowledge and personal experience into play to work to ensure that our district starts doing better when it comes to the rights and needs of special ed students

In your view, what has the district done well in recent years, and what would you want to see as priorities for improvement? 

Unfortunately, I have not seen the district do well on most special education issues in recent years. From the disastrous move to outsource our paraprofessionals to the ACLU and Office of Civil Rights complaint on how students with disabilities—especially black students–are disciplined, we literally have nowhere to go but up. There’s nothing but room for improvement here.

One area in which our district may be improving is the recent renovation of the Montrose school building which will expand our special education preschool services and – hopefully – keep more students in district. Keeping more special ed students in district should be a very high priority for our district. We are spending an astronomical amount of dollars right now on out-of-district placements.

If we can improve the basic operations and management of our special education department, we could go a long way to start to improve how we provide services.  

What are the greatest challenges facing special education in SOMA, and what specific policies and programs would you propose or modify to enhance the quality of special education, while considering the financial impacts on the district?

The greatest challenge facing special education in SOMA is funding. And I think we all know that there are no easy answers here. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A budget is a moral object.” We need decide what our morals are as a community when budgeting for special education services.

First, we need to get back to the basics in our special education policy and make sure that we are following every classified student’s individualized education plan and/or Section 504 plan. I can’t even count how many parents I’ve witnessed over the last few years become so frustrated by the district’s inability to comply with the basic components of their child’s plans forced to plead their cases in front of the Board during the “Public Speaks” portion of B of E meetings.

These have been the most heartbreaking and wrenching moments for me as a parent and as a candidate for the board. There are simply no excuses why a deaf child’s district-provided hearing aid does not have the right batteries ordered for it to function; or when the parent of a legally blind boy tells the board his son never got the textbooks he needed translated into Braille even though the school year was nearly half over.

We can and MUST do better for the most vulnerable members of our school population. If elected to the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, I vow to work to the best of my ability to advocate for special education students. 

 

 

 

Shannel Roberts

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education?

I am mom of a CHS junior, and in many of her classes there is a second teacher who provides in-class support to students.  I have found these teachers to be engaging, well organized, and some cases, without them I don’t think ANY student would do well in the class.  My daughter has a great relationship with one of the teachers who supported her Biology class during her freshman year, and they’ve maintained their teacher/student relationship and friendship. In addition to the example I provided about my daughter’s classes at CHS, my brother was a child with needs.  We grew up in the Lakewood school district and back then organizations like SEPAC did not exist.  My mother didn’t have community support and was often made to feel embarrassed.  My brother, along with others, rode on a “special” bus and sat in “one” classroom all day for their lessons.  He was isolated and made to feel different.  This isolation demonstrated to other children that this group was different, and at times fostered intolerance and bully behavior.  My brother had Mitochondrial disease and died at the age of 35. The experience with my brother has led me to want to help other parents and students navigate the special education maze and make sure no one had to feel isolated like my family did.
The communication gap between school administration and parents is disheartening.  No parent should have to fight year after year for what their children are legally entitled.  I think school staff can do a better job with timely responses, and I think our Board can do a better job at holding administrators accountable.  Our district has been sued countless times for their lack of compliance, and it is unnecessary for our community to retain a lawyer for anticipated lawsuits when all they have to do is honor student/parent rights. 

In your view, what has the district done well in recent years, and what would you want to see as priorities for improvement? 

I have seen the Inclusion model work very well for students in our district. It has boosted the self-esteem of students and teaches tolerance to all students.  It has also encouraged peer mentorship and support, and I have been happy to see how it has benefited all the children in the district.

I do believe that we can improve by strengthening our relationship with SEPAC. Parents need to be included and educated in this confusing process and organizations like SEPAC are doing that. I also believe that we need to do a better job at holding administrators accountable for non-compliance issues that the district continued to face, and in turn reduce the number of lawsuits that are occurring. 

What are the greatest challenges facing special education in SOMA, and what specific policies and programs would you propose or modify to enhance the quality of special education, while considering the financial impacts on the district?

Our greatest challenge is the lack of communication and accountability.  I hope with the Dr. Ramos now in place, he will meet with you, learn and exam the issues related to special services and look for ways to fix them.  I also hope he will make it a priority to close the communication gap and hold his staff accountable when things go wrong (Something that has been lacking in our district in recent years). I would also like to see policies in place that will support and not divide the educators and students in our district.

As a member of the board, I will exam the budgets and speak out against policies and practices that are wasteful and encourage our supporters to apply pressure whenever necessary. I will look for ways to bring back our special education student back to the districts, and  I also believe in looking at ways to bring our Paraprofessionals back to the district. Making cuts that affect our neediest population is just not good practice. The decline in services that has occurred over the past few years is upsetting, and we need to look for ways to help and support our students and educators.

 

 

Chris Sabin

What would you like SEPAC members to know about your experience and priorities regarding special education?

I am still learning all of the ins and outs of this complex subject, the laws about it and the district’s approach to Special Education. None of my own three kids is classified but I have several friends with children who have special needs.

I am painfully aware of the extra burdens and challenges this sometimes places on families and the stigma that sometimes attaches to their children. As a person of color, I am especially aware of the resistance that some parents of color raise when informed that one of their kids might need to be classified.

And I am aware that the district is currently one of 76 districts in New Jersey that were cited in a March 2014 court settlement on its placement practices for classified children. Specifically our district was cited for disproportionality by race when it comes to deciding which children should be educated in inclusion settings and which are to be kept in self-contained classrooms. All the fancy words in Board goals and policies mean nothing if the practices in the schools do not follow them.

I am running for the Board with Annemarie Maini, who has taught me a lot about these issues. We are in complete agreement that the district must improve the way it engages with families and children. If elected, we intend, among other things, to work to:

  • Put an end to the frustrating roadblocks too often encountered by parents of classified children and those with 504 plans when they try to ensure that promised services are actually provided;
  • Ensure that the District’s provision of inclusion class settings for special needs students complies with the law and is consistent with educational best practices;
  • Ensure that academic intervention efforts from K-12 are timely and aggressive, with staffing always matched to actual needs, seeking to ensure that all students are reading on grade level by third grade or, for older students, within 18 months of transferring into our District;
  • Empower teachers to raise issues with the confidence that their suggestions will get full and fair consideration up the chain of command;
  • Support parental “right to know” and make full transparency a top priority in communications regarding District policies, placement criteria and the academic and disciplinary decision-making processes.

For more detail, see our campaign platform at https://www.maini-sabin-2015.com/#!our-campaign-platform/cffq

In your view, what has the district done well in recent years, and what would you want to see as priorities for improvement?

Some children are well served and some are not. It is either a matter of luck or the result of having parents who know how to navigate the system and make an effective case for their children. That should not be. The Board needs to monitor what’s happening in more detail to ensure that all children are well served, irrespective of their parents’ ability to lobby on their behalf.

In the last year, I’ve learned a lot about the budget. Special education spending represents somewhere around one-sixth of all spending, although that may be overstated by incorporation of some regular education spending on special education budget lines. That means that some people consider special education to be the “cause” of our tax and budget problems. The Board must make a special effort to counter those misperceptions.

In spite of all that money spent, there are still problems and needs that are not well served. Too many parents feel like the district resists providing needed services because it is trying to control costs. Something is wrong here and we need to fix it.

We must work to identify those teachers that serve children well and make what they are doing the norm in all schools. That is especially true for serving classified children. The number one best practice is to see that teachers work at building relationships with each child and engaging them, making them feel a full part of the class.

That is why I fully support the view that our district needs to embrace the child-centered approach to education. Let’s end the sometimes-unconscious practice of putting labels on kids and see each of them as they are!

What are the greatest challenges facing special education in SOMA, and what specific policies and programs would you propose or modify to enhance the quality of special education, while considering the financial impacts on the district?

Our biggest challenge is to do everything that we need to do – especially what we’re legally mandated to do – within our budget constraints. The Board needs to step up and own its budget decisions. At budget time, it needs to challenge the Superintendent, in public, to explain how his budget recommendation will meet the district’s legal obligations and the Board’s goals and policies, with the money he proposes to allocate to each spending category. It may be that the Board needs to make some tough choices in public. I’m ready to do that so that we begin to serve all children well.

 

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