• Responses to the Questions raised by SEPAC

    The responses below are being offered to address the questions raised by the Ipswich Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) request “to clarify through collaboration with School Committee and District Personnel”

    Indicator 1 – Are there nuances to Ipswich’s 2020 IEP Senior cohort to explain the low index v. state and surrounding districts? 

    We followed the general link you posted, which accesses profiles for all districts in the Commonwealth.   The data which are referenced in the 2020 DESE source are actually for the Class of 2019.  The percentages at https://profiles.doe.mass.edu/statereport/gradrates.aspx are different than your quote that “Of possible graduating students on IEP…only 60% graduated.”   We could not locate the specific source you cited since there is no pulldown specifically for “IEPs,” as you categorized it.  For the category “students with disabilities,” the DESE link lists the following actual data:

    • 79.2 % of the 24 students (19 students total) graduated.  
    • 16.7%, (4 students total) “remained in school” (they continued through age 22) 
    •  4.2% (1 student total) dropped out.  This was a student with significant emotional and legal issues.  He was offered multiple alternative supports in regard to graduation including credit recovery tutoring, HiSet (replaces GED), and counseling.

    Given our small number of students, even one student can impact our performance percentages, but please know that we work very hard for each student and do all that we can to support success.

    Indicator 5.  SEPAC interpretation “Surrounding districts have a substantially lower rate of full inclusion IEP students and higher partial and substantially separate rates.  This suggests that surrounding towns dedicate more Special Ed direct support to students.”

    The nature of this question seems to imply a perception that “substantially separate” service delivery is more desirable or “better” than services received within the classroom. To the contrary, inclusion support requires a significant amount of direct support to students.   Although some students may be unable to receive their specialized instruction in the classroom because of distractions or because the student experiences difficulty in self-regulation, in Ipswich, particular care is taken for inclusion support to be a priority.  The support provided in the classroom setting is both direct, as well as time intensive. There are several reasons for this.  

    First, “full inclusion” does not mean that the special education student is receiving no specialized instruction outside the classroom. As explained in the Ipswich Public Schools Special Education Program Description on the Pupil Personnel Services homepage, inclusion support may actually require a larger investment of professional time than stand-alone tutorial support.  The use of the term, “full inclusion,” in a student’s IEP simply means that the student is receiving services outside the classroom less than 21% of the time. Students in the full inclusion category may be receiving services both within and outside the general education classroom. Service delivery is not “either or,” but often “both and.”  Being able to deliver specialized instruction in a manner that does not isolate the student or take him/her/them away from high quality general education instruction more than a fifth of the day is actually desirable.  It is critically important NOT to have special education students either self-perceive, or to be viewed by others.  as unable to participate in instruction with peers because of inherent perceptions of being different.  Not only do inclusion students experience less stigmatization, but their ability to also access the critical instruction provided to peers is important in their overall education. 

     A second factor affecting inclusion support is the District’s concerted investment in co-teaching.  Co-teaching allows students to receive specialized instruction within the classroom setting, rather than being pulled away for services outside the classroom.  Not all school districts have been successful with co-teaching because co-teaching requires a dedicated commitment at both the administrative and classroom levels.  The pairing of a special educator and general educator calls for additional planning time, scheduling, and determination of how instruction can be most effectively offered in multiple ways.  Further, the co-teaching process also involves clear post-instructional tracking of progress and effectiveness.  Although it is not possible to offer co-teaching in all classrooms, particular care is taken in scheduling to maximize the impact of co-teaching for the greatest number of students.  This means that the co-teaching classroom allocation may vary from year to year so that the greatest number of special education students can benefit.  

    The third advantage of inclusion support involves the generalization of skills.  Providing specialized instruction in the milieu allows students to more immediately generalize learned skills into the educational environment.  It is of limited value for a student to be able, for example, to learn phonics rules in an isolated setting, but then be unable to apply them in content reading.  

     A fourth advantage is that inclusion support honors the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) mandate that students should learn in the least restrictive setting.  Students who can successfully navigate a standards-based curriculum with the support of scaffolding and specialized instruction have an advantage over those pulled out of the classroom who may lose out on access to such instruction.  In fact, the section of the IEP called the “Nonparticipation Justification,” actually requires the IEP Team to document why removal is considered critical to the student’s program.  This recognizes that there should be compelling reasons before students are taken away from instruction in the general education classroom.

    Finally, in regard to programming, it should be noted that the PPS Department has recently contracted for an outside review of some of our programs so that we can benefit from independent, nonbiased expertise regarding our determination of program offerings.  In order to continue to effectively address the individual needs of our student population, we are open to recommendations from this consulting group that will help the District to remain responsive to shifting trends and needs.

    Indicator 8.  Parent involvement: How can Ipswich improve the distribution and engagement in this survey?

    As noted in the detailed response provided for an additional question below regarding parent feedback, the District has experienced a good response rate to its IEP Post Meeting Surveys.  We are also very willing to distribute your surveys via blind cc, which would respect the privacy of the recipients.

    It is important for all to note that Ipswich Pupil Personnel Services staff members are committed to engagement with parents.  They have continued building relationships with families and reaching out at the individual student level, and this has never been more so our practice than during the COVID-19 pandemic school closure.  Each special education parent received communications over the summer.  There is frequent communication with parents, in the form of phone calls and communication books, as well as response to emails within 24 hours during the school week.  At the high school, special educators have been very proactive, monitoring both when progress is not taking place and when things are going really well.  Liaisons there utilize either Instagram for homework, or Google classroom.  The Program Managers email parents before a meeting takes place and send meeting notes promptly.  Parents are treated as equal and participatory team members, and meeting schedules have even been changed to accommodate families.  In fact, one school was able to schedule a very late afternoon meeting.  Response to parents via email or phone has even taken place by mutual agreement at 9:00pm!  During the first week of school, every single parent of a special education student was contacted.  The special education staff members at all schools made real efforts to bring students back to in-person learning earlier than required by DESE, as well as reaching out to reassure parents.  This past summer, Ipswich was the first school district in the area to provide in-person services when we sought pre-approval from the DESE senior associate commissioner.  At the high school level, students maintain the same liaison for all four years in order to provide consistency and a positive relationship.  At the elementary level, bus duty, which offers parents and staff members the opportunity to see one another daily at pickup, has helped to continue to build trust.  

    Are there plans to improve the IEP Student/Spec Ed Teacher ratio in Ipswich?

    As presented during the budget hearings with both School Committee and the Ipswich Finance Committee, there are no plans to change the number of special education teachers.  A severe special education teacher was added in 2019 at the high school, but current analysis indicates realistic levels of support when total staff support is examined.  The FY'21 Special Education budget represents 22.5% of the school budget for a special education student population which is 18.69% of the school population. This means that special education students are receiving a higher level of funding than their general education peers.

    Special education statistics are a complicated metric, and special education teachers should not be viewed as the only source of specialized instruction.  Currently there are 119 Pupil Personnel Services staff members providing direct services to 307 students (October 1, 2020 DESE reporting).  This represents a 1:3 ratio, not counting the four Program Managers who do not deliver direct services, but who often “pitch in” in a variety of roles.   Further, the staffing number does not include teaching fellows who also provide direct services to some students. 

    The number of special education service providers is jointly determined with school administrators, and is based on student need, as well as fiscally responsible practices. In regard to need, we are mindful that all special education students do not have the same level of need.  Students with intense needs may require more staffing support.  For that reason, teacher: student ratios alone do not convey the complete details of resource distribution.

    An added piece of information to keep in mind is that the number of special education students is fluid during the year.  Students transfer into or out of the District.  Some students are “drive in,” meaning they may receive discrete related services such as speech and language or occupational therapy while attending a private school.   Students in out-of-district settings, while counted in the total special education population, receive all of their support in that placement, and therefore would not draw upon direct delivery from in-district resources except for IEP monitoring.  

    Is the current student/spec ed teacher ratio (13:1) so pronounced because of the high indexing full inclusion rate? How are success metrics measured here?

    The measure of 13:1 is not accurate.  With 32 special education teachers for 307 students, the student: teacher ratio is actually 9½:1.  Each special education student has a special education teacher liaison, who along with the Program Manager for the building in which the student receives services, maintains ongoing communication with the student’s teacher(s) and family.  In communicating with the teacher, the liaison monitors grades and classroom performance.  In some cases, the liaison may be a co-teacher, or in other instances, may be providing direct instruction.

    In regard to the question about full inclusion success, variables which impact success include the student’s skill set vis a vis the level of classroom instruction, progress monitoring data, level of specialized instruction required, scaffolding accommodations that the student needs, the student’s ability to emotionally regulate, and the least restrictive setting in which specialized instruction can be provided and in which the student can receive FAPE.  In classes that are co-taught, the dedicated special education support is often provided directly in the classroom with the student. Other types of inclusion support include opportunities for conferencing with the student, teaching/modeling/applying executive functioning supports, help with writing assignments, pullout counseling, and push in/pullout speech/OT/PT, as determined by need.  The nature of the in-classroom support varies depending on both the student’s service delivery grid, agreed-upon accommodations, and level of the general education instruction provided.  Again, it is important to keep in mind that a student receiving  less than 21% services outside the general education classroom setting, by definition, is still considered “full inclusion.”  

    Success metrics prompting greater inclusion include the student’s ability to access classwork with support, gradual increases in independent learning without constant adult support, evidence of generalization regarding what has been taught, and increased self-advocacy for support directly with the classroom teacher.  In particular, with those students who are college-bound,  exhibiting the Successful Habits of Mind (SHOMs), solid MCAS performance, and student growth scores improvement over time are all criteria for exiting specialized programming.  Progress monitoring in particular is able to document for families and staff alike that targeted interventions are working.   Realistically, students may not “lose” their disability, but they may be able to employ their own accommodations and supplement those offered to them, as well as draw upon their areas of strength to offset their challenges.  

    How do we interpret the double digit rise in IEP student population, relative to a tricky student teacher ratio and low graduating index v state and surrounding districts?

    It is not clear what this question is asking. There is no correlative relationship among these elements.  Any rise in special education eligibility speaks to identification based on individual presenting needs.    Each finding of eligibility is an independent one, which is why comparisons between students are inappropriate.  Increased numbers reflect a generational decrease in infant mortality where the impact of birth defects may linger through many instructional years.  Higher eligibility determination is also often related to increased educational research and more nuanced assessment procedures that identify greater numbers of less severe conditions for possible intervention.  

    Eligibility is dual -pronged, meaning that the student must have both a disability and a need for specialized instruction.  For the very same reason that students are able to exit special education without being “cured,” so too must statements about increased incidence be interpreted with caution.  At the other end of the eligibility-exit continuum, the combination of early special education intervention, well-trained special education personnel, and highly structured classroom settings with natural scaffolding often play a part in earlier exit from services for some students.

    As addressed in the first question asked, there is no low graduating index.  Not only is the graduation rate for students with disabilities higher than the percentage SEPAC cited, but it was also noted that the one student who failed to graduate experienced both emotional and legal challenges, and was offered multiple resources that he refused.

    Comparisons to other districts are misleading, even as comparisons between schools within the same District are meaningless.  Student needs and presenting disabilities may vary from site to site.  At the elementary level, we have a bubble at some grades, requiring more services than other grades, but this is a purely local statistic.  Total District numbers in Ipswich also include students whose families relocate to town because of educational services, as well as 12 special education School Choice students whose families have made a deliberate decision to move to Ipswich for special education support because of dissatisfaction with what is available in their home districts.  In the current school year, there are also two special education students whose districts of residence are paying tuition for the students to attend the Ipswich Public Schools and receive their specialized instruction here.

    Can the Pupil Personnel Services team provide an org [organizational] chart of headcount & position by school regarding Special Ed teams, teachers & paraprofessionals?

    There is actually contact information on each school’s homepage.  In order to make this information accessible in one place, however, we have welcomed your suggestion and listed a link on the PPS homepage. The original justification that SEPAC attached to this question included a statement that “it would help parents to understand both challenges and positive opportunities.”  We have not provided the contact information for the paraprofessionals on staff, however, because the primary contact for any of these individuals should be through the Program Manager or special education liaison.

    Can the Pupil Personnel Services team provide staff with annual empathy/sensitivity training to refresh on parent perspectives, and alleviate the related stress and discomfort regarding IEP or 504 meetings?

    This question was particularly surprising to the Program Managers and me. The special education secretaries send out a satisfaction survey with the issuance of a new IE, called the “IEP Post-Meeting Survey”, which is completed anonymously.  In the period July 1, 2020 through April break 2021, we received a total of 131 responses. This is a little over 41% response rate, while a 30% response is typically considered an excellent response rate.  

    Of those responses, on a satisfaction continuum, 100% of the responses are 4’s or 5’s, with the most being 5’s, indicating “strongly agree.”  There is also an open-ended question that asks, “In the spirit of continued improvement, we would be open to any suggestions you might make.”  We honestly have never received negative feedback.  Typical responses include, “A big thank you to the entire team for all you have done for us, and all you continue to do!!”; “You guys are amazing!”; “Team was clear with set goals and I was in agreement with all suggestions.”; “Thank you!  This was really a good experience.”; “We are beyond appreciative of all work done.”; and “It was a good meeting and the people that were present were very helpful in my questions and also my son was present to add his voice which was important to me.”

     In the year of COVID, we all need to allow ourselves some grace.  A Zoom meeting proceeds differently than an in-person meeting.  Zoom can freeze.  We have all been trying to be responsive to personal and sensitive topics in a Zoom meeting, but interjections and interruptions may be difficult to discern in this setting.  Nonetheless, since special education is part of general education, ongoing training has been provided for staff in Socio-Emotional Learning and trauma sensitivity.  We apologize for any such perception as indicated in the question, and we would certainly appreciate SEPAC directing the parents who believe their needs were overlooked to contact us.  We would find it difficult to change the purported Team interactions without specific input that would allow us to address them. We will certainly examine where any potential lack of sensitivity could be construed to have taken place, but, such a circumstance was not brought to our attention, or it certainly would have been addressed.  

    Can the Pupil Personnel Services team provide a synopsis of programs offered, and how Ipswich approaches each?

    This is an excellent suggestion.  As a result, we have created a program description statement explaining our overarching philosophy of support for special education students, which appears on the PPS homepage.  There is also a description of co-teaching on the Ipswich HS homepage under the “Our School” pulldown.  Special education offerings at the high school level are also detailed in the high school handbook, found on the IHS webpage.

    May 3, 2021