Dear Dr. Salim, Honorable Mayor McGovern,
and Members of the CPS School Committee:
We are writing to request that you address the dramatically inequitable distribution of resources devoted to family engagement via the position of Family Liaison. While we applaud the decision to expand the role of Elementary Family Liaison, we were dismayed to note that the needs of special education families have been overlooked.
Although this is likely an oversight, we ask that you consider this to be a pressing matter of urgent concern, given:
The legally-protected and critical role that parents play in the special education process
The complexity of special education law and difficulty that many families have, trying to understand their rights and responsibilities in planning for their children’s education while developing their knowledge of their child’s specific learning needs.
The particular impact of this complexity on communities of color, bilingual communities, and economically disadvantaged communities.
The unnecessarily wide gap between the academic achievement, social-emotional wellbeing, and long-range outcomes between students with, and without disabilities.
Simply reviewing the caseloads of family liaisons reveals the disparity:
Type of LiaisonHrs/WeekStudents Elementary30324 Upper School20 265 High School401,965 SEI (ELL Programs)40560 (8.1% of District Total) Title 1301,160 (45% of Title 1 Schools) Special Education10-151,534 (22.2% of District Total)
(Source: DESE – School & District Profiles)
The Special Education Liaison’s work fits squarely within District Planning Objective 4.1 Families As Partners, and 3.2 Inclusive Practices. All of her work aims to support parents of students with disabilities and empower them with the information they need to be full partners in the education of their children.
The current Special Education liaison has made dramatic strides towards building diversity and equity within the community of families who are empowered as advocates for their children in Cambridge. Historically, special education advocacy has been the domain of the privileged. In Cambridge, our liaison works to build the capacity of all families to support their children to reach their full potential.
Our liaison is essential to the health of our group. She supports, advertises, and conducts outreach for two, twice-monthly support groups (held at Fletcher Maynard Academy and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School); two monthly events designed to welcome and attract families and their children, in order to build a diverse and inclusive support community; Workshops and SEPAC business meetings – at least once per month – on topics which this year include Basic Rights in Special Education, Understanding Slow Processing Speed, Dyslexia, and Understanding Challenging Behaviors. She also provides referrals and support, and meets monthly with members of the CPS administration. She is doing an excellent job and has in fact diversified not only the membership, but also the leadership, of our organization.
Please go to our website, www.cambridgesepac.org to read about the work of our Special Education PAC, which is made possible by the support of the Special Education Family Liaison. We have advocated for an expansion of her role for the past two years, and can think of no reasonable explanation for her to be excluded from the District’s effort to strengthen Family Engagement through the position of Family Liaison.
Thank you for considering this very urgent equity concern.
Cambridge Special Education
Parent Advisory Council
SEPAC Business meetings will be the Third Thursday of every month (except April vacation week) from 6-8pm. Location TBD.
Next SEPAC workshop will be with Dr. Nadine Gaab on Reading Disabilities. Date TBD – late April. Ideas discussed: send flier to Community Engagement Team (CET), promote for 1 month.
Chandra Banks is hosting School to Prison Pipeline Meeting March 20th 5:30-8pm The group discussed bringing fliers, having a petition for parents to sign, speaking with ABBOT coordinator.
Rocket Days, Cambridge Science Festival – Sennott Park, April 17th, Danehy Park, April 18th
The Monthly Sensory Friendly Movie Matinees are generally the 2nd Saturday of the month and they are scheduled to ensure that people can attend Federation Workshops.
The SEPAC met with Superintendent Salim and Interim Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Jean Spearo. A major focus was on screening for Kindergartners and the curriculum that Cambridge is using to teach reading.
A SEPAC member discovered that teachers for the middle school self-contained classroom are not certified in a multi-sensory, structured literacy/reading program for kids with dyslexia. It appears that children in that the reading disabilities classroom at VLUS were getting less reading instruction than children getting reading pull outs.
The CPS response: It is hard to find certified teachers. OSS had some workshop for Orton Gillingham, but the schools don’t provide the training for teachers. Spera acknowledged that it requires a lot for teachers to teach using this method. They need to know what to do when these methods aren’t working.
SEPAC asked about the new Literacy program for Special Start programs, which was touted in the OSS newsletter and gives the impression that literacy instruction in Special Start is not appropriate for students with reading disabilities because it is described as “balanced literacy.” According to dyslexia experts, balanced literacy refers to a whole language-based reading instruction with some added phonics. It is not structured literacy.
SEPAC asked about providing dyslexia screening in Kindergarten. Spera stated that CPS would only do this if state law requires it. The SEPAC raised that the an internationally renowned expert in the field, Dr. Nadine Gaab has offered to do free screening for all kindergartners, and teacher training. Members discussed organizing parents on this issue.
It is likely that the law around mandatory screening for dyslexia is going to pass this year. The state has set up a commission to study how to screen all Kindergartners and the State wants to have a standard screening too. Others districts are getting ahead of the issue, but not Cambridge.
The group discussed whether it has been effective to focus at the individual level, supporting families to prepare for team meetings and sometimes attend meetings with parents. The SEPAC has spoken to school committee but hasn’t seen changes as a result of these efforts. The SEPAC may need to move towards a more direct action model, organizing parents/families around the following issues:
Availability of Structured Multi-Sensory Literacy Instruction
Training for Parents (Dr. Gaab)
Get parents to sign petitions
Get involved in supporting state-level advocacy for existing legislation (work with Decoding Dyslexia)
Universal Design & Inclusion of students with disabilities
Quality Control in the Sub-separate classrooms so that children are not so far behind academically
In the past, when children had cognitive disabilities, they used to put them in institutions and not educate them. Everyone thought they were intellectually disabled, nonverbal, etc. and that they would never learn.
Members experience these attitudes among teachers even today — the belief that people with intellectual disabilities cannot succeed. Add to that, the issue of racial bias: if you are African American, you are more likely to be misdiagnosed with an intellectual disability. If you are white, you are more likely to receive an autism diagnosis — which brings with it greater protection and more belief in your ability to learn.
If you look at self-contained classrooms, there are primarily children of color in them. If you have resources, you can move your child to a private school that is more specifically designed to meet your student’s unique needs. If you have information, even if you don’t have resources, you can advocate for your child to placed in a private school if that is what they need.
Cambridge SE-PAC was well represented at the Visions of Community Conference held by the Federation for Children with Special Needs on March 10. Thanks to scholarships from Cambridge Public Schools and the Federation, a diverse group of CPS families were able to attend this annual conference in downtown Boston.
The conference included three 90-minute breakout sessions focused on early childhood, special education, learning disabilities, and challenging behavior. In addition to workshops in spoken English, closed captioning, ASL and language translation were available and a subgroup of workshops were presented in Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, and Haitian Creole. The conference also included two stirring Keynote Addresses.
Tom Sannicandro, Director of UMass Boston’s Institute for Community Inclusion, spoke about the tendency of schools and other community institutions to expect less for individuals with disabilities when it comes to fully participating in education, career, and community life.
One focus of the ICI’s work is advocating for businesses and organizations to include individuals with disabilities in their recruitment and hiring. Not only is this the right thing to do, he argued–it will also lead to better outcomes.
For example, he described an ICI Board Meeting where a Director who has Down Syndrome emphasized the importance of using plain language, “so that everyone will understand what we are talking about in our advocacy.” In this way, embracing diverse abilities and neurology yields a more inclusive and well-considered end result.
Citing the “high hurdle of lowered expectations,” he noted that too often conversations about the futures of students with disabilities do not include a discussion of college. Today, in addition to community college and 4-year universities, increasing numbers of higher education institutions are developing Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Programs (ICEs) and other means for providing a college experience to students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These certificate programs offer valuable training for entering the workforce while enabling students to experience college life.
According to Sannicandro, “Too often, conversations about children with disabilities do not include discussion of college–but our children are no different than any other children. We need to hold our communities, our schools, school administrators to a higher standard.”
To his audience of special educators, administrators, and special education families, Sannicandro expressed empathy for how difficult is can be to advocate for a child with a disability.
He stated, “Education is a civil right. It is our responsibility to make sure that all of our students are prepared for adult life. Yet, sometimes parents ask, did I go too far? Did I ask for too much? I understand my community is strapped for cash — should I stop pushing?”
He paused, allowing the audience to answer with a resounding, “No!”
Then he continued, “The reason the answer is no is not just because of the child in front of you. It’s because we are fighting for every child in our community.”
The second keynote presenter offered a living testimony to the power of full inclusion. Melissa Joy Reilly, a powerful self-advocate and Special Olympian, is a graduate of Acton-Boxborough High School and the Transition Program of Middlesex Community College. A staffer for Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge, Melissa began by describing her varied interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes. Then, she said:
I am pretty much a regular girl who just happens to have Down Syndrome. But you know what? I am also a lucky girl. I grew up in a great family, in a great town with great schools. Way back when I started school, inclusion was just beginning. My parents tell me some great people like Lou Brown, Martha Florist, Sue buckley and our own Ann Howard gave them good advice about supporting me in school. They and many others had a vision that inclusion was going to make life better for everybody.
They opened the eyes of many teachers and special educators. How lucky was that?
For me, inclusion was normal. So, all the way from Kindergarten through high school, I was part of the regular education classes – except for math. I love school. Even that big bus. (I think you know what I mean). Now because of inclusion, all people with disabilities are getting a better education and are getting better jobs.
Many years later, I was told that inclusion was not exactly normal. It was not exactly an easy ride. There were many bumps, but my parents had help. They would be forever grateful for Rich Robinson’s advice. And to Tom Sannicandro, for getting us through a legal mess.
By the way, I do know that having an extra chromosome also comes with some extra challenges. But, I have learned out to deal. But, for the most part, I am just a girl who is more alike than different.
And that is why, after high school, just like my classmates, I wanted to go to college too. Live away from home. And then, maybe get a dream job. Well, living away did not happen. Because I went to Middlesex Community College. I graduated from their transition program with a certificate in office support. And guess what? I did get a dream job.
I am working here in Boston at the State House. I am an office aide for Senator Eldridge. I just love my job. And I just love going to work. My co-workers are all super nice and I have the best boss ever.
Along with pursuing her career, Riley volunteers with a food pantry and serves on the Board of Special Olympics. Riley is an accomplished Special Olympian herself, and won silver medals in skiing at the International games in Nagano and in Pyong-chang. She is also a motivational speaker who draws on her experience to demonstrate how the limitations society imposes on students with disabilities does not reflect their true potential.
Referencing her participation in the MA Down Syndrome Congress “Your Next Star” campaign, Melissa ended her presentation with a promise that inclusion can work. She said, “Dreaming and hoping for a bigger and more interesting life can become a reality. Today, each one of us in our own way has the opportunity to reach for the stars.”
Parents and Guardians are crucial to the special education process, but not all students with disabilities have a parent or guardian who is able to participate. Special Education Parent Surrogates fill the parent/guardian role on the IEP team and amplify the student’s voice in the special education process.
If you are experienced as a parent advocate, or would like to make a difference in the life of students with disabilities, consider applying to become a special education surrogate. Training and supervision are provided by the Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN).
Come learn techniques to help you understand your child’s challenging behaviors and what you can do to improve them.
Thursday, January 25, 2018
6:00 – 9:00 PM
One Broadway Street – Cambridge
Presented by CPS’s own Craig Estee
Craig M. Estee, M.Ed, BCBA, LABA holds a master’s degree in Severe Special Education/Low Incidence Disability from Boston College Graduate School of Education and is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA).
Craig holds a professional license as an Applied Behavior Analyst (LABA) in MA. His 20-plus years working with children and adults with disabilities includes time as a transition-aged special educator, a supported living manager, a job coach, a recreational counselor, a Multi-Handicapped teacher, and as Autism Specialist for BPS.
Craig served Boston Public Schools for 15 years as a teacher of students (all levels) with ASD and intensive special needs. Craig has also worked for TILL, Inc., LABBB Collaborative, and Perkins School for the Blind. Craig currently serves as Behavior Specialist for ASD for Cambridge Public Schools in the city of Cambridge, MA.
Cambridge Citywide Senior Center
806 Massachusetts Avenue (across from City Hall)
Dr. Braaten is the author of Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up and an expert on educational interventions for students with slow processing speed, a common component of many students’ learning profiles. Learn how to help your child overcome slow processing speed so they can perform better in school, keep pace with friends and family, and maintain healthy self-esteem.
On October 19, 2017, the SE PAC hosted a round table with the Office of Student Services (OSS). Three representatives of Office of Student Services, led by Jean Spera, met with parents and caregivers. Topics covered included: recent MCAS results, the quality and size of physical spaces where special education programs are housed, the programs for children with language based learning disabilities and for children on the autism spectrum, supports for inclusion. Jean Spera reiterated the power of parent and caregiver advocacy and referenced the successful advocacy of the SE PAC in the district wide planning process.
Three representatives of Office of Student Services, led by Jean Spera, met with parents and caregivers. Updates from OSS:
The SE PAC will be contacted soon about participation in the hiring of a permanent Deputy Superintendent for OSS
In the meantime, OSS intends to continue the work started by Dr. Greer and maintain stability for students, families and teachers
CAST (Universal Design) is being piloted in Morse school
Issues raised by attendees and OSS responses:
Children on IEPs are scoring far lower than any other sub group on MCAS.
JS responded that the school committee is discussing setting targets for all students and sub groups. Also, this is the first time CPS has a mandate from the superintendent on inclusive education and support from above. It’s a starting point to motivate action planning at the district level.
Children on IEPs are learning in sub-par physical spaces (example of special education students working in hallways)
JS agrees that space is a significant problem in the district and recommends that families advocate with building principals for appropriate spaces for special education programs.
Language based learning disabilities
Multiple parents asked about the language based learning disabilities program (why so few children are enrolled, why the space provided is inadequate, why there is no middle school program, why we don’t have better screening to identify children in need of services). One parent asked for a task force on language based learning difficulties in Cambridge.
JS responded that a program review will be done in the future and that parent advocacy is important. She indicated that a strong program was in place and that it may need to be nurtured. She also said that some parents do not want their children in the program and try to get their children out of the system instead. Screening would provide valuable information. Last year CPS trained 20 staff in Tier 1 Orton-Gillingham. This year there is a cohort doing the Tier 2 practicum.
How can parents and the SE-PAC strengthen to support OSS?
The barrier used to be at the level of OSS but appears to be at the building level now. JS commented that the SE-PAC’s advocacy on the district plan was helpful.
Some parents indicate that the general education side of the co-teaching teams are not prepared to educate students with disabilities and need additional Professional Development. Some general education teachers want to do better but do not feel they have the resources to meet the needs of all of their students.
JS mentioned that buy in from the school level administration is key for this. In response, one parent stated that the district should insist that everyone get on board with inclusion or be asked to leave.
Math curricula can be chosen at the teacher level. This is problematic because our children are likely to move from school to school. We should be advocating for citywide curriculum.
OSS wants to be involved in curriculum selection and was included in the selection of the math curriculum. OSS was not aware that the math curriculum was optional.
Lack of progress
If a child is not successful and is getting everything CPS offers, we cannot accept a lack of progress.
OSS replied that the goal is grade level standards but we have to meet students where they are. There are minimal barriers to resources, and teams have the option to make recommendations. The team chairs need to be aware of all the options they have.
The Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) sub separate program
Behavior management is trumping learning in the ASD programs. Many children are not accessing the curriculum.
OSS responded that there was a program review and that changes are underway. ACE curriculum and Teach Town will be implemented starting in November.
Out of district placements
A lot of money is being spent. Why can’t we improve our programs to meet the needs of these children? As we think about inclusion, how are we thinking about out of district placements?
JS said that the district has explored creating in district programs for some of these children, for example medically fragile children. CPS does not have enough children to fill a cohort in many cases. Also, space is a problem.
The suggestion was made that the SE PAC needs a platform with our points, and we need to sign off on them and train, workshop, organize.