SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 20, 2009

Number of special ed pupils worries experts

By Amanda McGregor

SALEM — City schools must better assist struggling students, re-evaluate elementary literacy programs and track student data, among a long list of measures to reduce an abnormally high number of special education students, consultants say.

The superintendent and School Committee commissioned an evaluation of aspects of the special education program in an effort to learn why nearly one in four Salem students receives such services.

Educational consultants Ellen Michelman and Debra Packard presented their findings to the committee last night.

"There are a lot of things you can do rather than put a child on an ed plan right away," Michelman said.

"Many people struggle but they're not necessarily disabled," Packard said.

The consultants said Salem needs to be consistent throughout the school system about what constitutes a "slow learner" versus a student with a disability.

The consultants advised staff to document what happens when a student is referred for special education services.

"The referral information, it's scanty," Michelman said. "There was not consistent data for us to analyze. We could see a student was referred but there are no data of what happened once the child was referred. That needs to be addressed."

Packard said data are critical at pinpointing the cause of high special education numbers to see if there are more referrals coming from a particular school or grade level, or individual teachers. Documentation will also reveal what the intake process is, and how students are assessed and re-evaluated.

The consultants said so-called child study teams who evaluate a child for special education services should include bilingual specialists when needed, or a literacy specialist if a child is struggling with reading.

Over the course of their research, the consultants said they met with about 60 people, including teachers, staff and administrators, and they produced over two dozen recommendations, ranging from teacher and staff training to making time for regular meetings with special education teams.

"We asked some teachers ... could they describe how they're teaching reading?" Michelman said. "Their answers were pretty fuzzy, so we're concerned."

Karen Malio, director of pupil personnel services, received the 50-page report in June and said that many of the recommended changes are already underway. Superintendent William Cameron noted that the advice has "highly practical applications for us."

In Salem, 24 percent of students are on individualized education plans (special education). The state average is 17 percent. School officials had wondered if Salem's high number of low income and English as a Second Language students were being referred to special education at a greater rate, but the consultants said that is not the case.

"That's not to say you don't have a lot of high-risk students in Salem," Michelman said. "You do."

The consultants also found that teachers were concerned about students with emotional and behavior disorders.

Mayor Kim Driscoll, who is chairwoman of the School Committee, said the committee should meet again to review the findings and choose what areas to focus on.

"There is a lot of information here," Driscoll said during last night's meeting, which was held in the Collins Middle School prior to the School Committee's regular meeting.

Michelman and Packard praised the Salem staff.

To view the full special education evaluation, visit www.salemk12.org and click on "Special Eduation (SIC) Report May 2009."