Town divided over future of special education

While the schools have publicized a summarized version of what residents, teachers and students are looking for in an interim special education director, an examination of the entire results paints a somewhat different picture — one of a divided town that is split over the best path for the schools to take.

There were three positions that most comments fell under, according to survey results obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. A majority cited the need for children to come first; the next highest number of people expressed concern for children’s needs, but that it should be met within a budget; a small number of people noted that reining in spending was still the highest priority.

“Keep in mind that there may be a silent majority who views the unfunded and heavy-handed mandates that Darien [special education] must enforce as being unreasonable,” one person wrote. “Please keep costs down as much as possible but stay within the boundaries of the law.”

The summarized survey, which was presented by Clara Sartori, Board of Education vice chairman, omitted most comments that did not relate in some way to other comments. The first question asked respondents to indicate the top five most important qualities from a list of 14 attributes. It then asked for comments on other suggested traits.

Most of the comments were included in Sartori’s presentation of the first question, appearing as consolidated information. A few comments were omitted, such as the suggestion that all 14 attributes be core skills; content, and not the appearance of it, should be of chief concern; the director should not talk down to parents or embarrass children in front of their classmates; and the suggestion to not hire any of the current assistant special education directors for the job.

“Honestly, the best candidate would be just like Robin Pavia,” one person wrote, referencing the former special education director who retired last year.

Another person agreed, and suggested the district restore “the quality of services that existed prior to this school year and to repair relationships with the parent community.”

Rebuilding trust with parents was the top mentioned item, as noted in Sartori’s summary. Yet, some saw things differently, with one person advising the district to bring spending in line with other similar school districts.

“Why are we different,” the person asks.

Another person said that “controlling the budget of the special education program” should be the interim director’s top priority.

Others said things like a “cost-effective program” should be the focus, while still others said it was more important to “put students first, not budget considerations.”

Some appeared more balanced, noting the importance of an appropriate education within a budget.

The interim director should focus on “determining what services the [special education] children qualify for and making sure they get those services and only those services,” one person wrote.

“The new director must balance the delivery of services with the need to reduce costs associated with those services,” another person wrote. “All children in the district should be getting an appropriate education, not just the ones with disabilities, yet the cost of educating disabled students is disproportionately taxing district resources.”

Another respondent echoed that sentiment of stealing resources, saying the director should ensure “that regular education students do not suffer as a result of too much time [and] money being spent on special ed.”

“Ensure the needs are met of the children, however, without abusing the budget and being bullied by the system or the parents,” the person wrote.

One person said it’s important for the interim director to be aware of what has happened over the last year.

“While we all need to heal and move forward, knowing what went wrong is also important,” the person wrote, adding that the interim director should participate in the district-wide staff training and work collaboratively with staff.

Some expressed the need to review the individualized education plans of children who have been in special ed over the last year. One person noted the importance of setting high expectations for all students.

“Expect more, not less, and the results will exceed the present ones,” the person wrote.

Sartori’s summary did not include any of the comments made by survey respondents who identified themselves as teachers. With few exceptions, most teachers have not been publicly vocal with their opinions on the special education problems. Some have spoken on the condition of anonymity, as have others who have since left the district when the problems surfaced last year.

When asked to consider the most important priorities for the interim director to address, one person, claiming to be a Darien Schools employee, said quality assurance has been lacking in the special education department.

“Even outside of the current [special education] situation there has been no one checking in on the [special ed] teachers to ensure they are actually providing the services to their students,” the person wrote. “As an employee, I can tell you for certain there are several [special ed] teachers that are coasting.

“That’s not to say there aren’t many who are going above and beyond, but it’s very frustrating to see those that aren’t and it causes problems among the staff.”

Another person, self-identified as a teacher, said the goals on children’s individualized education plans, or IEPs, should be “more reflective of the current workshop model instruction that occurs in most classroom.”

“As a classroom teacher, I can tell you the IEP goals I see do not usually reflect the type of ‘push-in’ instruction we want to give our students,” the person wrote, referencing the importance of a student being educated with their peers as much as possible, in what’s known as the “least restrictive environment.”

“Finally, I would like to see more training of the instructional aides that work for the [special ed] teams,” the purported teacher continued. “They often have the responsibility of collecting data and delivering instruction and need more training. They have made these requests in the past.”

Data collection and records retention recently came under fire when The Darien Times reported email correspondence between current special ed director, Deirdre Osypuk, who is on paid leave, and assistant director, Liz Wesolowski. The chain showed Osypuk ordering the destruction of records without mentioning the legal requirements for destruction. Some parents have also complained that the district has not provided them with adequate data on their children’s education. At least one of those parents has a child who does not receive special ed services.

One person noted the need to push back “on the demanding parents looking for excessive special education services,” but another called for the district to “clean house” of those staff members who “created and engineered those policies” that have been deemed illegal by the state.

Another respondent, self-identified as a parent, discussed his/her child’s education this past year, and how “the quality of the service was considerably diminished” compared to years prior.

Another person said it was important for the interim director to not make “side deals with parents outside of the [planning and placement team meetings], which happened before the current director.”

One person came to Osypuk’s defense, saying that she “was always available to staff,” and that she put “the child at the center of any discussion…”

The controversy behind the Board of Finance’s involvement in education affairs was discussed a few times, with one person noting that it was “clear” that “the issue is a lot more extensive than poorly chosen words in training materials.”

“The Board of Finance and the [Representative Town Meeting] have created an environment where what happened was viewed as acceptable,” the person wrote. “The answer cannot be ‘carry on as usual but don’t be stupid and put it in training materials’.”

A few respondents also mentioned collaborating with other districts, and one person advised the district to collaborate with agencies that regularly serve Darien students, such as the Southfield Center for Development, Winward School, and the Sylvan Learning Center.

This would help the district “get a broader perspective on the changes that need to occur to bring [special ed] service delivery in Darien to the proper level,” the person said. “No doubt, these conversations will point back to the problems with Darien’s regular ed elementary curriculum.”

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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