Statement from the Leadership Team of the Cambridge Special Education Parent Advisory Council

Dear Madam Mayor, School Committee members, and Superintendent Salim,

Cambridge Special Education Parent Advisory Council is an all-volunteer group of Cambridge parents and caregivers working to improve special education and general education practices with particular attention to the needs of black and brown scholars with disabilities and special needs in our community. Our guiding principle is that decisions must be made based on the needs of the child, not the availability of programs or resources.

We want to begin our comment by saying thank you for basing your latest proposal on the needs of our scholars and community, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all model. Your new proposal is a significant improvement and we can see that you have been listening. 

On order #20-204, parents of scholars with disabilities have a range of opinions on standardized testing. The core mission of Cambridge SE-PAC is to focus on the needs of students and to demand accountability for ensuring they are learning to their greatest capacity.  

Under current conditions, we are united in a belief that standardized testing in Spring 2021 would place undue burden and stress on students and teachers alike.

However, our students — particularly students of color with disabilities — are most at risk for being left behind during this pandemic and we demand that CPS adopt an alternative assessment that is reliable, transparent and family-friendly. CPS must commit to improving practices for sharing information about how our students are doing in relation to grade level standards.

We have repeatedly asked the district to adopt the iReady system, which is used in charter schools and private schools to share real-time data on student learning between teachers and families. The system is more timely and more family-friendly than the MCAS, and our students with disabilities in charter schools find it easier to demonstrate their learning. This would replace the district’s use of FAST assessments and make student learning data fully transparent.

Statewide accountability measures should not be discarded until appropriate and transparent in-house measures are in place to ensure that parents and families understand how our students are doing during this difficult time, such as the iReady System. We have recommended adoption of iReady in writing, in public testimony, and in meetings with the Superintendent and Office of Student Services. If the CEA is serious about finding an alternative to the MCAS, we call on you to be allies to our students by investigating and publicly supporting this measure.

On #20-209, understanding that being outdoors reduces the risk of transmission of COVID-19, we remind our community that the needs of all students must be considered in this and any other procedural change. Specifically, there are a number of medical conditions that would result in the exclusion of students if outdoor learning were to take place during certain New England weather. For instance even if warm clothing were provided on cold days, many conditions such as sickle cell anemia, asthma, and allergies which are prevalent in communities of color would be exacerbated, compromising immune systems further. Please keep in mind that some of our teachers and staff also suffer from these conditions. 

In addition, some students with special needs have a tendency to bolt away from their classroom and therefore would be unable to safely participate in outdoor learning without added adult supervision. Finally, the very common issue of inattention among students with disabilities should be proactively taken into account by ensuring that learning activities and curricula support students who may be easily distracted in the less-controlled outdoor environment.

With all of this said, there are also benefits for many students with disabilities to spending more time outdoors and specific classrooms or groups of students who may be able to adopt this measure without a problem. It is our role and responsibility to ensure that any course of action under consideration keeps in mind the needs of students with disability from the outset, and not as an afterthought.

We support the spirit of 20-205. In spirit, this order would provide parents and caregivers with greater transparency about children’s learning progress. Research shows that clear communication with families about what students are expected to know, and how students are progressing, is an important strategy for improving student achievement.

Under conditions of remote learning, this type of transparency and collaboration is especially important. Whether the district develops its own means for communicating student progress on “power standards,” or adopts the iReady system as we have repeatedly recommended,  school-caregiver partnership is crucial to building a more equitable, anti-racist, person-centered and socially just school system.

We encourage the District to continue to listen and actively seek out input from parents and caregivers to ensure that all families understand and agree with any adjustments made to student expectations when teaching and learning under conditions of a pandemic.

In Conclusion, our comments tonight point to the importance of transparency and accountability for student learning. The district’s revised proposal and inclusion of diverse parent voices on the COVID-19 Task Force suggest a deepening of respect for the role that parents and caregivers play in education. 

We would like to point out that IEP meetings are a context where the parent/caregiver role in education decision-making is legally mandated. We call on CPS to treat IEP teams as a microcosm for fully collaborative decision-making. Unfortunately, at this time, IEP teams do not provide a model of what collaborative decision-making should look like. Too often, decisions seem to have been made before the team even sits down at the table. When our views differ from the district’s position, we often face hostility.

We will continue to raise this issue, but take heart in the actions the district has been taken to fully include diverse parent and caregiver voices in decision-making at the district level. 

Thank you very much for your time and for all you are doing to support the best possible decision-making during this difficult and unprecedented time. 

The Leadership Team of Cambridge Special Education Parent Advisory Council:

  • Nicole Ahart 
  • Ruth Ryan Allen  
  • Bernette Dawson  
  • Lisa Downing 
  • Karen Dobak  
  • Gardite Fougy  
  • Love Holloman  
  • Julie McKinney 
  • Alec McKinney 
  • Berry Pierre  

  • Rosalie Rippey   
  • Mercedes Soto  
  • Ena Valenzuela 
  • Linda Vick

Cambridge SEPAC Statement Advocating for the Learning Needs of Students with Special Needs for Remote and In-Person Learning

As we face a pandemic which includes both COVID-19 and the the centuries-old public health crisis of systemic institutional racism, we, the leadership of the Cambridge Special Education Parent Advisory Committee urge CPS to prioritize the physical and emotional safety of our children with special needs, especially those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Under life and death conditions, we must also stand up for the physical and emotional safety of the educators and staff who care for and educate our children.

CPS must collaborate with families and caregivers to ensure the removal of additional barriers faced by students with special learning needs to receive a free appropriate public education. We urge the district to adopt a remote educational model at the start of the school year, making in-person education the exception and not the default. And, we urge CPS to prioritize students with the most needs and the least resources for in person learning and partner with caregivers and students to plan for safe, in-person learning options for these students.

Priority students must include younger children, some students with special needs of all ages, placements and grade levels, and students at risk of dropping out of school, including those who failed to engage with remote learning. CPS must do whatever it takes to make sure that all of the trauma experienced by students due to COVID does not result in further lifelong trauma due to a failure to complete high school.

Decisions must be made through equity-driven partnerships and relationships, and not one-size-fits all. Equity means that students who need more, must receive more.

Targeted outreach to families must be provided to ensure understanding and provide families with the opportunity to opt-in and have their children attend school in a physical classroom with co-created and realistic safety procedures that minimize the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus from home to school. This communication should be done by phone call or video meeting whenever possible.

For students on IEPs, CPS must ensure that students receive appropriate accommodations that both goals and services outlined in their IEP are adapted based on the different conditions present with remote learning. This includes collaborating with caregivers so that additional needed services are added to the IEP without delay if they are needed to ensure that students receive a free and appropriate education in a remote context. These may include additional goals, accommodations, or services that had not previously been needed.

Additionally, for Special Education Students, CPS must ensure that students are provided thorough transition planning services starting by age 14. CPS should collaborate with the student and caregivers to ensure that the transition planning goals are truly about the student’s dreams for adult living and address all of the competencies necessary to make the student’s dreams come true. Due to the constraints of what can be accomplished under COVID, we demand that CPS extend the timeframe to accomplish the students transition plan beyond age 22 if needed.

In order to maximize learning in a remote context for ALL students, CPS must take decisive action to provide high-quality, consistent, interactive and relationship-driven remote learning opportunities for students who are able to participate and access the curriculum through this medium. We expect our students to receive a robust education that addresses their learning gaps and continues to teach new content.

CPS should utilize all staff to reach out and develop relationships with students. Some staff could be assigned to be “youth outreach workers” to text reminders and make phone calls to ensure that students are engaged.

In addition, CPS must collaborate with all educators and staff to ensure that they receive the support they need to effectively serve students remotely including partnering with caregivers to determine what works best for students to make progress. In the interest of transparency, learning benchmark assessments should be shared and discussed with parents regularly, whether or not a student has an IEP.

CPS must also teach students how to plan for and organize their day for remote learning. This includes explicit teaching of schedule planning, calendar use, alarms, and notifications. Expectations should be clear around attendance and remaining focused and engaged during virtual lessons.

Finally, CPS must work with caregivers, teachers, and principals to change its discipline procedures to one of restorative justice and positive behavioral support. This means eliminating the practices of suspensions and expulsions. For too long, black and brown students, particularly those with disabilities, have been excluded from school due to behavioral concerns by either sending the student to the office, calling the parent to pick them up without documenting this as a suspension, or through formal suspension or expulsion from school. We are concerned that increased policing of student’s bodies will occur due to COVID concerns, and that this will be used to further marginalize this population and deny them the same learning opportunities as their peers.

We look forward to continued collaboration as we all look for solutions that will best serve students in Cambridge.