Assistant Superintendent Victoria Greer

Assistant Superintendent Victoria Greer leads the Office of Student Services.

Before School Committee members or Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Victoria Greer had uttered a word on special education at Tuesday’s meeting, parents made a full-court press during public comment supporting “out of district” programs sending students to day and residential schools better able to meet student needs.

“The word on the street is that the School Committee will cut the Office of Student Services budget because there are too many out-of-district placements,” said Special Education Parent Advisory Council co-chairwoman Karen Dobak. “We are lucky in Cambridge to have someone [in Greer] working hard” on this issue and making fewer out-of-district placements a major goal.

020816i students with disabilities“I don’t know what street it was, because it wasn’t Broadway,” committee budget co-chairman Richard Harding said later in the Feb. 2 meeting, held at 459 Broadway. “This school committee didn’t talk about [cutting the budget].”

Communities are required to pay the costs of students needing out-of-district placement, which makes the line item seem safe compared with some others. Annual budget authorizations remind how expensive they can be, and there has been sharp committee questioning about them.

The proposed budget for next year, as presented in January, anticipates an increase of $2.5 million, bringing next year’s total cost for out-of-district tuitions to $14 million. This year, there are 164 students going to day and residential schools and some in hospital settings, up from last year’s 139; next year, seven more are projected. Though relatively stable as a percentage of total student population, costs are high and keep increasing with students’ increasing intensity of need, Greer said.

Committee member Patty Nolan believes Cambridge sends too many students out of district. “Last year we were twice the state average in terms of the percentage of students who are out of district. This year we are two-and-one-half times,” Nolan said.

Two years ago – one semester into Greer’s work – the committee was thrilled to see the number of out-of-district placements drop from the high of 185 in 2010-11 – a drop Greer attributed to the successful management of a reorganized and expanding autism stream in the public schools and hoped to continue by creating in-district programs to allow keeping more students.

But this year, Greer has admitted there’s no handle on why the numbers are going up. The most common disability category for out-of-district students has been emotional issues – almost 2.5 times the next highest category, autism. Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk has said the spike in emotional issues is seen state- and even nationwide. But that doesn’t explain why Cambridge is so high compared with the rest of the state, and even with other urban areas and those with high poverty rates, Nolan said.

Amid discussion on why emotional-based disabilities are going up, no one referred to the many teachers and parents who have testified to the committee in the past year and as recently as last week drawing connections with increases in “overly structured” learning with less recess and increased testing and test preparation.

Office of Student Services

020816i sidebarThe out-of-district students are just some of the students with disabilities under the auspices of Greer’s Office of Student Services. Another roughly 1,300 in-district students have Individualized Education Plans, the legal documents outlining special instruction and supports, representing one-fifth of the district’s total enrollment of about 6,700.

That’s fairly representative of the public in general, Greer said. Including four colleagues joining her at the table, she said, “that means one of us has a learning disability. Guess what? It’s me.”

While the number of IEPs has gone up, as a percentage of the district’s population it has been fairly stable. While the disability categories of autism, health and developmental delay have risen recently, the primary category is a “specific learning disability” such as dyslexia. “This means that they have the ability to access the curriculum – they should be able to achieve the same as any student” with the right supports, Greer said.

About 260 students have “Section 504” accommodations (a less involved process for children who do not need specialized instruction), many diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. The number of students with these plans has risen dramatically, more than doubling in five years. Jean Spera, director of student services, named three possible reasons: changes in laws defining covered disabilities; better outreach and ease of enrollment in the plans; and implementation of the Innovation Agenda, which “put students in grades six through eight in new school environments, where the demands are higher to be more independent” and may have “exacerbated or made more apparent” students’ issues.

Questions about effectiveness

Committee members found Greer’s presentation and accompanying report comprehensive and “rich with information,” as Mayor E. Denise Simmons said. “I am astounded by what you do.”

Greer’s first major undertaking was a complete reorganization of a broad department. With 360 staff members – including one focused on advanced learners – it covers all levels of specialized programs from preschool through to age 22 for some children, including Special Start; deals with government regulations and programs; and provides not just educational services but related ones such as speech, occupation and physical therapies, counseling, psychological evaluation and assistive technology.

“How do you measure service?” committee member Fred Fantini asked. “What metrics do you use? What are the most important service elements?”

“Some of it is anecdotal,” Greer replied. She meets regularly with the parent advisory group, gets notes from parents and even listens to “how my staff answer the phone.” They rely on surveys to gauge satisfaction, though the department struggles with family survey fatigue. A reference to a “70 to 75 approval rate on most things” was made without comparison data.

“Anecdotal is helpful,” Fantini said, “but you have to be able to measure.” Noting that special education students still lag far below average on MCAS scores, despite some improvement, Greer agreed the question remains: “Why is improvement not happening faster?” The only MCAS data in the report was for advanced learners.

Importantly, the SpedPAC parent advisory group continues to be a strong backer of Greer – not necessarily the case for her predecessors. Dobak said she has seen a “remarkably positive change” under Greer, based on her 22 years as a special education parent for two children. Reached after the meeting, several parents said Greer’s reorganization has made significant improvement to a previously Byzantine institution.

More credit was given for what member Harding dubbed the “social justice picture,” when Greer showed that the balance between paid-lunch and free- or reduced-lunch families sent out of district has begun to level off. Where several years ago most out-of-district students were paid-lunch – suggesting these families may have been better advocates for their children’s needs – now there is more parity.

All about inclusion

The elephant in the room, though, seems to be the struggle for full inclusion, in which special education students can be included in general education classrooms. Increasingly, parents and special education professionals been asking for it, though some parents of out-of-district children are wary.

“Until there are in-district services equal to those my son is getting now,” said one, “you cannot cut out-of-district placements.” She and others gave heartfelt testimony on their need, and the difficulty coming to that decision. “It was a tearful meeting. He left feeling that he was shipped out because he was bad.”

“We were fierce advocates for our son,” another parent said. “We fought for everything short of outplacement” before finally acknowledging it was appropriate. Today, his 8-year-old has a one-on-one aide and anywhere up to four people working with him each day, he said, and the family is “profoundly grateful.”

Some parents suggested after Tuesday’s meeting that even partial-inclusion classrooms cannot work well in Cambridge until all general education teachers have special education training.

One of Greer’s initiatives has been implementing online professional development for teachers. “Time is our major barrier,” she said.

There may be help on the horizon. Turk said that she recently learned that, “much like the training now required for all teachers related to English-language learners,” soon all teachers will be required to have special education training.

“This is the big-ticket item in this district,” Greer said. “We need to meet the need of every student along the spectrum. If we can crack this egg in Cambridge, I think we can be on our way to real success.”

“I do think you are on the leading edge of changing the culture for the entire district,” committee member Kathleen Kelly said to Greer and Turk. “That is the change that we need to see happen.”

While there was no budget information Tuesday, Fantini volunteered that he would support the work breaking down the wall between special and general education. “If you need resources, we are here. If you need to make people uncomfortable, you have my green light to do that.”

Other business

The committee passed without comment specific contracts of $140,000 for out-of-district tuition and $36,000 for IEP-related services; as well as approval of $11,000 in grants and gifts. Also, the Kennedy-Longfellow School is getting an $11,800 state reward for improving its MCAS standardized test performance. Assistant Superintendent MaryAnn MacDonald assured the committee the King Open and Putnam Avenue Upper Schools will also get extra funds.

The committee also agreed to seek funds from the state’s School Building Authority to replace the roof of the Fletcher Maynard Academy building.

Also passed was a motion by Simmons, Fantini and member Manikka Bowman to create a civic unity subcommittee to consider “matters relating to civil rights, human rights, race and class relations” – issues Kelly pointed out have previously ended up in the school climate committee.

Finally, the committee passed finalized budget guidelines. After some procedural issues when member Emily Dexter was unaware the committee had already unanimously voted in favor, Dexter was allowed to change her vote to “present.” Saying she was “extremely pleased with the guidelines” and the management of the negotiations by budget subcommittee co-chairs Kelly and Harding, Dexter said she “would not be able to vote yes” because of objections to the larger budget process in which “we come in when about 70 percent of the process is already done.” “I have no answers to my constituents for why public safety is getting a 4.1 percent raise [from the city] and we are getting only 2.8 percent.”

Harding took umbrage. “I don’t know where this 80 percent notion comes from,” he said, misquoting Dexter. Kelly suggested there is “a real need to understand how the municipal budget is put together. We have run into this a number of times. There’s a level of mistrust by a number of people in the community on whether or not they can have any influence on the budget.”