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Committee examines plan to address special needs

Date: 1/11/2011

Jan. 12, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield has one of the highest percentages of special needs students in the state and the School Committee heard an update of efforts to best address the educational needs of the students at its meeting on Jan. 6.

The city has a rate of 24 percent of special needs students, which Dr. Mary Anne Morris, the district's director of special education and John Kim of the District Management Council described as well above the state and national average, which is about 13 percent.

Kim said that while the district does some aspects of special education well — including passionate staff members, a focus on core academics and instruction — one major problem is identifying students as having special needs too early. Kim said that half are characterized as special needs students before entering kindergarten.

Kim said premature identification doesn't help the student reach his or her academic goals at this age. He also noted that some schools in the city have higher identification rates than others.

Educational program also vary from school to school, he noted.

Kim acknowledged there are "mounting pressures to do more with less" as municipalities face a possible cutback in state education funds.

Preparing for the plan began last May with the gathering of information from teachers and administrators. The superintendent's office is now beginning discussions on its implementation.

The plan Kim and Morris outlined would include individual schools formally sharing their best practices and consolidating what is effective. They also said that the efforts of general education and special education must be merged and that student achievement data for each student and school must be compiled.

School Superintendent Dr. Alan Ingram emphasized the plan would not deny educational services to any student, but rather "refine processes and procedures."

One concern noted by Kim and Morris is the $16 million the city spends for the transportation and tuition of special needs students who attend schools outside of the city. They recommended a collection of data be undertaken to see if there could be a consolidation of transportation services to save the city money.

They also questioned the $16 million spent on paraprofessionals in the classroom and said their role and schedule should be re-thought. The two speakers said there was a concern the use of paraprofessionals prevents students from gaining the independence they need.

Although School Committee member Antonette Pepe praised the plan in general, she questioned that assertion and said paraprofessionals do what they are instructed to reinforce the actions of teachers.

Ingram added the plan does not advocate the elimination of paraprofessionals.

Pepe asked for the committee to receive an update on its implementation in the future.

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