RPS on “Defining Engagement: The Impact on Alternative and Special Education”

The first panel discussion I want to unpack in detail is one presented by Randolph School Committee member Keith Wortzman, Randolph Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Anderson, and Maria Lopes, the Director of Special Education of Randolph Public Schools.

I attended this hoping to learn more about ‘best practices’ for education those students with special needs. The description is as follows, from the MASC.org website:

Engagement requires a focus on several components that revolve around the student: community, parent and staff. This presentation will share how Randolph Public Schools has been working to address the needs of all of its students with an intense focus on those with special needs and those in the alternative program. This panel will present strategic methods from varying perspectives representing parents, community members and staff. All are linked and assist in creating opportunities and an environment in which all individuals are comfortable and confident in their educational interactions.

Before I start on the unpacking of my notes and takeaways, a brief word on the term ‘Special Education.’ I have serious reservations with this term. I take even more offence with the abbreviated term ‘SPED.’ In discussing students with special needs as a class with teachers and parents alike, I have come to understand that SPED or special education is used most often by the students themselves as self-descriptors and in a fashion that is not merely self-deprecating, but flippant. These students when using these terms are ironically showing the teachers and those around them that they are in fact marginalized. I view all education as special, and recognize all students learn via different modalities. I am, for instance, a kinetic, auditory and visual learner. I learn by seeing, doing and hearing, preferably all at once. Indeed, all students have special needs, as we each learn differently. Frankly, I find ‘special needs’ to be a more general and appropriate descriptor. Thus, whereas many will use ‘special education,’ I will use ‘special needs.’ Now onto the originally planned programming.

RPS has a significantly more diverse student population than we do here in Melrose, though with slightly fewer students (~3000 at RPS v. ~3700 at MPS) and a nearly identical number of schools, with 4 Elementary Schools, 1 Middle School and 1 High School. Their strategy is ‘Building Capacity: Increasing Rigor Through Relevance and Positive Relationships.’ They have a higher-than-state-average percentage of students with disabilities (23.4% v 17.1%) and students with high needs (58.2% v 42.2%). This sets the district up for challenges in meeting the needs of these students.

wpid-img_20151110_230413.jpgHow RPS approaches the educational needs of these students was of keen interest. Of the 4 Elementary Schools, 3 are specialty schools: a Communication Learning Center, a Therapeutic Learning Center and a Developmental Learning Center. The Middle School has a Therapeutic Learning center, a Language Based Learning Center and an Intellectual Learning Center. The High School has both a pre-vocational program and an alternative program.

RPS Director of Special Education, Maria Lopes, oversees a broad and diverse team of inclusion teachers, paraprofessionals, and related service providers. With this approach, the number of out of district placements of students with special needs has decreased from 97 students in 2013 to 65 students in 2015.

Lastly, Superintendent Anderson stressed that rigor as a buzzword is overused, but if redefined, it has meaning:

He then left us with this last video: