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The Haggerty School could get a kindergarten program fully integrating special education and other students and be run mainly by general education teachers.

The Haggerty School could get a kindergarten program fully integrating special education and other students and be run mainly by general education teachers.

The School Committee confirmed an opportunity next week for public comment on the district budget, adopted specific budget guidelines to help the superintendent craft next year’s budget and got a status report from the new director overseeing special education at its meeting Tuesday.

It was uncertain for a while whether budget subcommittee co-chairman Richard Harding would agree to public comment before the committee’s own budget retreat. Harding was seemingly unaware of the rest of the committee’s agreement at the Jan. 14 meeting, when he was absent, to hold an early public hearing. Patty Nolan, Kathleen Kelly and Mervan Osborne pressed for public comment earlier in the process before everyone was back on the same page and finalized the plan.

Folks who want to comment on school budget issues should be at the committee room, 459 Broadway, by 6 p.m. Tuesday. Public comment will be televised, but the budget retreat that begins at the close of public comment will not.

The committee also finalized its budget guidelines on schedule for this year, albeit a few months later than years in which membership did not change.

The guidelines are meant to provide broad goals. Last year’s guidelines outlined seven themes, each a sentence long, such as “Student achievement should be the driving force in budget decisions regarding programming, staffing, curriculum and student attendance.” This year they were a bit more specific. For student achievement, they added, “We ask the superintendent to place particular emphasis on raising achievement for all students, with certain subgroups having accelerated achievement growth, thereby closing achievement gaps.”

Other noteworthy additions:

bullet-gray-small“Provid[ing] options for implementing world language in the elementary program, taking into consideration the constraints of a six-hour day”;

bullet-gray-smallExplicitly including the Rindge School of Technical Arts and extension program as parts of the high school that need support;

bullet-gray-smallMention of “favorable class size” in the high school;

bullet-gray-smallA call for building a more diverse faculty;

bullet-gray-smallAnd specific calls to fund program evaluations, implement resulting program recommendations and consider alternative measures of achievement.

This higher-than-usual level of specificity, delivered later in the process than usual, could create an interesting dynamic when Superintendent Jeffrey Young presents his draft budget, expected in March. The budget calendar is here.

Special education

The bulk of the meeting was a presentation by Victoria Greer, the new director of the Office of Student Services (previously the Office of Special Education). In her status report on the department, Greer pointed out that she is the sixth leader in that role in a decade, and continuity and predictability were among her key goals for students, parents and staff.

According to her presentation, Of the 6,361 students enrolled districtwide in October, there were 1,203, or 19 percent, with disabilities. The most common primary disability was emotional; the second most common was autism.

Cambridge has about 150 students in out-of-district placements, meaning that the schools or families feel the student cannot be served sufficiently by the public school system. This number is about twice the state average for a district, but lower than its recent high of 2010-11 – a drop driven largely by the creation of an in-district autism stream. Greer said she hopes to keep creating in-district programs that will cut back on out-of-district placements and ensure students a high-quality education “in the least restrictive environment” possible.

She proposed improved training for all general education teachers on special-education topics, including through Web seminars, and proposed a universal summer camp she would pilot this summer for 30 special education students. The camp would run two to three hours a day for five weeks with targeted services, counseling and related skill-building, all at no cost to parents.

“It would feel like camp. The sessions would be fun,” Greer said.

She also wants to try a kindergarten program at the Haggerty School that would have complete integration of special education and general students and be run mainly by general education teachers.

Out-of-district placements are a major concern because the district has to pay for the placements – $13.8 million in the district’s adopted budget for the year, up nearly 5 percent from the previous year, out of total special education expenditures of $48 million – and, Greer pointed out, with no control over the quality of services students get. In the next few months, Greer planned to visit all of Cambridge’s out-of-district sites for evaluation.

Cambridge is also required to provide all appropriate support services to Cambridge children with disabilities whose families opt to go to private and independent schools, she said.

Committee members responded warmly to her presentation. Although much of it was a survey of  its current state, members seemed won over by her apparent enthusiasm for the work, emphasis on communication and collaboration as needing significant improvement and approach that general and special education issues should be seen as fundamentally intertwined.

The presentation was so warmly received that afterward the committee added language to its budget guidelines’ Special Populations section directing the budget to provide adequate funding to “educate students in inclusive environments based on their individual needs.”