, Newburyport, MA

November 16, 2012

Schools delay hiring of new SPED director

Focusing its effort on shoring up program

By Lynne Hendricks

---- — NEWBURYPORT — After receiving upwards of 20 applications for the position of special education director, the search committee overseeing the process unanimously voted to wait until spring to select a final candidate.

While Superintendent Marc Kerble spoke positively of the slate of candidates who applied for the job, he indicated it would benefit the district to make sure it was getting the most qualified candidates possible in its pool of potential directors. And the time when most candidates entertain making a move is in the spring.

“I always feel it necessary to say something positive about people who apply for a position in this district,” said Kerble. “We had a threshold, and we decided as a group to wait until spring so we have this pool as well as a greater pool. That was a unanimous decision by 19 people.”

To that end, Kerble said he’s asked interim special education director Cindy Joyce to stay on through the end of the year, and finish the work she started of streamlining a SPED program Kerble said has been the envy of other districts. Since the forced resignation of SPED Director Karen Brann due to legal troubles, weaknesses in the administration of the program have been detected and pointed out by Joyce.

But when Kerble presented an action plan to the School Committee last week, he assured them he will get the program running more efficiently into the future. Pointing to budget deficit numbers that are due, in part, to the district’s hiring of new SPED teachers this summer to meet increased demand, he touted the city’s dedication to educating the SPED population.

“One of the things Newburyport has been proud of has been its inclusion effort,” said Kerble. “We’re trying to meet the need of students. I think that’s why we have these additional costs. We should be proud, but there are additional costs.”

The draft list of priorities and action steps presented to the committee include finalizing protocol procedures for a number of processes under the SPED umbrella, including the referral process, the organization of Response to Intervention teams, and functional behavior analysis; developing descriptions for all special education programs; working with team facilitator leaders to examine the staffing patterns across the district to promote equity; training staff on individualized education plan (IEP) development; providing more frequent communications to parents on student progress with an emphasis on explaining the role of their child’s liaison; and providing more professional development for staff on SPED eligibility, IEP development and screening tools for early childhood.

Kerble said the list of these primary goals is being considered items of special attention to be implemented immediately, and address certain areas where much work has already been done, but are either in “draft” form or in various states of completion.

“The Special Education Ad Hoc Committee presented a list of recommendations that would be a great blueprint for the new special education director,” Kerble writes in the draft list. “Meanwhile, the following presents primary areas/topics/goals that will need special attention, immediately.”

Reflecting on the number of SPED students who have enrolled in out-of-district schools that cater to that population, Kerble said he tells parents of those children that local schools present a better option.

“We believe we can educate our students in our schools,” said Kerble. “We believe it. Our principals believe it. Some parents feel we can’t meet the need of their particular children and they would like them to go somewhere else. Landmark is a top choice. It’s a brand name.”

But Kerble vehemently disagrees with that point, and said the district’s work this year on administration of the program is going to get the message out to parents on the differences between the different school models. Where Landmark School employs a one-on-one strategy of educating students, Newburyport follows an inclusionary model. Comments made by School Committee member Dan Koen suggested the city’s way is more effective.

“We’ve sent staff to those out-of-district placements and they come back and report that our programs are similar or better,” said Koen.

Kerble emphatically agreed that Newburyport’s model, and the number of staff it employs to carry out its work, make it the better choice for local parents.

“We want to integrate our kids and we feel we do a better job,” said Kerble. “We feel we can do quite well competing with outside placements.