NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 4, 2012

staff turnover raises concerns

School officials seek to address special ed program

By Lynne Hendricks Correspondent
Newburyport Daily News

---- — NEWBURYPORT — A month after legal and personal troubles forced the resignation of the district’s special education director, parents of students served by the program are raising concerns.

Following the exit of director Karen Brann coupled with a spate of recent staff and administrative departures at the Molin and Nock Middle schools, including the loss of team facilitator Marcy Amolski, Roseanne Nercessian this week called on the School Committee to take a more active role in shoring up the program. If it doesn’t, she said, it risks the academic failure of the district’s most vulnerable students.

“Now, I’m not like some other people in our society,” Nercessian told the committee Monday night. “I’m not looking for the school to feed my kid and I definitely am not looking for the school to provide a moral compass for my kid. What I am looking for is a safe environment where my kids will learn to read, write and understand history, science and mathematics. That is not happening today, at least not for my child.”

Nercessian called into question positions that have languished unfilled within the department since the beginning of summer, individualized education program (IEP) meetings that were cancelled in September due to Brann’s departure and staffing shortfalls and the district’s hiring of an interim director who works only four days a week.

“The parents of these students cannot be heard unless they reach out several times and micromanage the process, and those tax-paying parents help fund this district,” Nercessian said. “We should have a shared goal yet it seems to me to be an extremely adversarial process and it starts because you don’t have the personnel in place.”

Superintendent Marc Kerble took exception to Nercessian’s characterization of the Special Education Department, which he’s been told by the new interim director is “well staffed.” But he promised to follow up on Nercessian’s concerns.

“I take this very seriously,” Kerble said.

School Committee member Steven Cole, who also serves as committee representative on the Greater Lawrence Educational Collaborative that provides supplemental special education services to the district, blamed an unusual period of turnover within the district for creating some of the disruption for the city’s special education students.

Cole said he fielded a call from a family who claimed items in their child’s IEP weren’t being delivered on time. But with the unusual circumstances surrounding Brann’s departure, coming as it did after a key facilitator left to pursue another position, he said it’s possible that things fell through the cracks. However, he said he hoped that going forward, the administration will report to the committee its progress on filling positions and getting the program back on track.

“Kids have to get off on the right foot,” Cole said. “I think it would be helpful for us to get a report, and that developments with special education services maybe get on our regular agenda.”

Melissa Cody, co-chairwoman of the district’s Parent Advisory Committee, which serves as a bridge between parents of special education students and the schools, said she hasn’t received any specific complaints from parents regarding student IEPs not being met this fall. But she noted parents often go straight to the school with their complaints rather than through the PAC.

In light of Nercessian’s comments, she said better communication regarding details on new hires and future program plans might also help alleviate parents’ concerns.

“The PAC is made up of these families and our role is to go into the staff, work with them and try to have lines of communication open,” Cody said. “If they want parents to feel confident in the work they’re doing. I think they maybe need lines of communication open.”

Cody added PAC members are aware of the turnover and other issues with the special education program.

“We feel staff is overwhelmed and it would be good if they had support,” she said. “But I don’t know if that’s in the plan.”

Regarding the turnovers, she said many of the jobs listed on the district website are not up to date, with some having been filled and others still vacant. She said she hopes all positions are filled as quickly as possible.

“It’s concerning just for the fact that there is turnover,” Cody said. “We just hope they can get people into place as soon as possible and move forward with programming and supporting these families and students.”