Margaret Raymond Driscoll is a nine-year Melrose School Committee member who is passionate about excellent teaching and learning for all public school students, and considers it a privilege to collaborate with others who share that passion. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc. Just to be clear - opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Melrose Public Schools, the Melrose School Committee, or the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials - they are hers alone.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

3/5 Saturday Budget Session: Special Education, Technology, and Administration

(Reminder: official minutes of the Melrose School Committee can be found on the melroseschools.com web site following approval by the Committee. My notes are below, and edits and errors are mine alone.)

Asst. Supt. of Pupil Personnel Services Patti White-Lambright, City of Melrose Director of Information Technology Jorge Pazos, and Supt. Taymore presented the final three topics.

Special Education: begins on p. 42

Asst. Supt. White-Lambright: is involved in more general education issues than people might think. Her work incorporates Accommodation Plans (also known as 504’s), school counseling services, Civil Rights, homeless students, and services to teachers (workplace issues, etc.) so in a way, she interacts with all students and teachers in the district. Special education involves children from age 3 through 22 and is a legal mandate (incorporating student needs and district philosophy). Melrose uses an inclusion model embracing school/community as a whole. It encourages adults to be positive role models, incorporate compassion and understanding, and allow access to education for all. Teacher licensure requires fifteen hours of special education training. Budget choices incorporate the shifting of resources, including the need to support Tier II students (which decreases the reactive and increases the proactive approach to improving learning). It allows for planning, including early intervention and helping Kindergartners who come from a learning experience other than the ECC. Evaluations of students allow opportunities to close the achievement gap. (My notes:* achievement gap is the gap between the performance of regular education students compared with students in groups deemed by the state to have higher needs; * a one-pager on “Tiers”  - also known as Massachusetts Tiered System of Support (MTSS) which is used in Melrose - is here: http://www.mass.gov/edu/docs/ese/accountability/mtss/blueprint-chapter-2.pdf.)

Notes based on questions to Ms. White-Lambright: Tier II services can be special ed. or not, and are not only beneficial to students but also more cost-effective. If students aren’t making progress, there is concern by the state that there is “lack of consistent instruction” and that can have negative consequences. Tier II services have been instrumental in closing the achievement gap. Tutors and other supports are used to help students close gaps, and sometimes they are only needed for short periods of time to get students on track. (There can be a point where students get too far behind and that results in other challenging issues, like seeing themselves as unsuccessful.) Implications of a level-service budget mean we sacrifice some Tier II for other Tier II services (e.g. choices around what work is done by a school psychologist – evaluations? direct support?). In theory, more Tier II services would decrease legal fees for special ed. cases, right? (Not necessarily because the overall population of special ed. students comes into play – the more special ed. students, the greater potential for a parent’s legal challenge around a student’s services (with appreciation for the fact that it is a parent’s right and duty to advocate for their child(ren)). There is an increase in the number of students on the autism spectrum and this is known because ECC Director Donna Rosso keeps administrators informed about her population. Do we start more sub-separate classrooms to help? (That sometimes doesn’t help since students need to be around general ed. students too, and it’s also expensive.) The District Curriculum and Accommodation Plan (DCAP) is a living document that is truly used in Melrose (unlike some communities where it gets “kind of dusty”). Melrose is doing a very good job maximizing it effectively, getting better every year after starting to “push” it four years ago. Melrose Education Team Facilitators (ETF’s) say they see its positive impact. Administrators and staff have had “deep conversations” about how teachers can use their best judgment to best benefit students. DCAP is “situational” (about individual students) and teachers talk about things like “What if a student hits the wall educationally?” “Does a student have too many accommodations” which is holding him/her back? How much student growth is developmental?. Regular ed. children don’t have federal mandates or legal requirements on class size; the special ed. class size laws came from Civil Rights vs. education legislation. Melrose does a very good job keeping students in-district (only 50 students placed out-of-district). There are costs no matter where a child received education; our philosophy is that all students should be able to access as many school offerings as possible, and some special ed. students may need accommodations (like a supportive adult paid by the school) to participate in an extra-curricular activity. The more involvement, the more cost.

Technology: Interspersed on pp. 49-50

Director of IT Jorge Pazos: Deployment of the new technology on carts went very smoothly. The city and schools each employ three people. Hardware expenses reside in the city budget and the schools take on software expenses. The two main budget line items are $25K in supplies (replacement keyboards, projector bulbs, cables, etc.) and $100K in licenses (Aspen, Survey Monkey, Soto Anti-Virus, IXL, etc.).

Notes based on questions to Mr. Pazos: As the world becomes more digital, the cost of licenses will increase. The HS Learning Commons will house 8000 books. When textbooks are purchased (note: curriculum materials expense, not tech.) we always buy the license, which helps backpacks weigh less since kids aren’t bringing the books home. Students say they prefer print materials though (ref:
http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/bookmarks/2016/03/students_prefer_print_schools_pushing_digital_textbooks.html?intc=bs&cmp=SOC-SHR-GEN). Bandwidth is a difficult challenge and has been sufficient, but now there are even more Chromebooks, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), etc. Bandwidth has been raised from 30 mbps to 100 mbps and last year we doubled the bandwidth for only $200-300/year. We’re starting to look at costs for next year. With blended and on-line learning, is the only cost Virtual High School (VHS)? (No – need someone to vet the course, etc. which is a staffing concern.) Can we do software collaboration with other schools? (Possibly but since pricing is on a per-student basis, vendors aren’t incented to give discounts.) The HS is starting a student-run help desk, which is done in a few other districts; it will be housed in the Learning Commons and students will receive course credit for that work.

Administration: Interspersed on pp. 49-50

Supt. Taymore: There are minor increases in staff lines for salary raises. METCO is in expenses but they are somewhat offset by the state grant. METCO Director Doreen Ward would say that buses are a challenge and there is a late bus for HS students partially supported by the Rec. Dept., the school dept. and the boosters.

Notes based on questions to the Supt.: There are no requests for additional leadership support even though needed. More secretarial support would be helpful to take some work from principals. Space issues are a concern at the elementary schools and continue to be reconfigured to support needs. The older buildings were built using an educational model not used today (e.g. not built for special ed. and used to be a “6x6 model” of desks since students didn’t move around the room). But buildings can’t be replaced. Ideally need to base the building on delivery of service. The Supt. has asked City Planner Denise Gaffey to reconvene the Permanent School Building Committee to discuss space options. Enrollments look like a wave vs. a long-term trend, so how do we manage that? (Long-term forecasts show MA population declining.) It could not have been predicted that Melrose would become such a desirable city. Demographics have also shifted markedly: 40% of population was age 60 or higher and is now 12%. Re-opening the Beebe does not seem feasible. We also have to consider the needs of other municipal buildings like the police and fire stations.