The 2021 School Committee Candidates share their thoughts on 3 specific Special Education questions from Natick SEPAC  
Matt Brand

Question #1: What is your explanation/understanding of inclusion and what do you think NPS can do to increase inclusive practices?

Inclusion falls under the Equity umbrella for me and while the tactical practices associated with increasing inclusion might be different, the philosophy is the same. We must ensure that ALL students can be successful, regardless of their needs. Over time, there have been different opinions and practices related to how to best provide the right environment to achieve that success. Over the past 8 years, we have had increased programming in Natick so that students are able to stay in their home district rather than needing to go elsewhere for services. It is important, in terms of inclusivity, to make sure that kids can be with their classmates and home district communities. Inclusion of children with special education needs in general education classes, right alongside children who don’t require special education services, is a great way to remove the stigma that is so often associated with special education. The social and emotional health of students is the foundation of academic achievement. If a student doesn’t feel safe and nurtured the challenges they face regarding learning achievement are even greater. The way to make people feel safe and nurtured is by making them feel like they are part of the community, as equal first class citizens, not as some separate group of people who don’t interact with everyone. Of course, this is not always possible.

As with the equity efforts that the NPS has taken on, the solution is multi-faceted: the teachers are where the effort starts. Increasing the training for teachers so they have the tools and resources to not only educate all students but to be able to properly communicate with the general education students about what inclusion means to them. The curriculum must also represent all of our students. In terms of cultural equity and diversity, there has been a deliberate effort to increase the diversity of authors and topics that are covered in books. This practice should extend to all different types of students. The more exposure all students get to all students, the better we all are.

Question # 2: If a parent approached you with a concern about special education in Natick and claimed it was a systemic problem, what would you do?

One of the most important things I think a School Committee member can do, and something I’ve done a lot of over the past 3 years, is to listen. Each person in our community, whether they have children in the schools or not, has a unique perspective and real feelings. The last year in particular has been incredibly challenging for everyone. It is important to pay close attention to every claim from a parent and take them all seriously. We all deserve to be heard. This is less of a hypothetical question for me. Over my first term, I have been approached plenty of times by parents who have concerns about special education in Natick and how they believed it was or might be a systemic problem.

In those situations, and any in the future, I listen first, without judgement. We all care deeply for our children and are constantly advocating for their wellbeing. While it is difficult for any one person to truly know if a problem is systemic on their own or even through anecdotal information, if a parent feels it is important enough to bring to my attention, it is certainly something I have and would continue to take seriously. The charter and responsibilities of a School Committee and its members does not include day-to-day management of student services but that doesn’t mean I can’t be helpful in these types of situations. As a School Committee member, it is important to look at the whole district and determine what are systemic issues and what are individual issues that would require individual attention.

There are a few things that I’ve done and would continue to do that I hope and believe helps these parents and their children: I am always happy to connect parents with the appropriate people in the school department or help them understand who the right people are to talk with and what the right questions are to ask. One of our School Committee members acts as a representative to SEPAC. I would also bring issues to their attention so that they could speak with the SEPAC leaders. When necessary, I communicate with our superintendent about what I’m hearing to see if she is familiar and whether she has also heard of similar issues. Our superintendent, Dr. Nolin, has always taken a very hands-on approach to finding solutions and solving problems. Also, as with anything that comes in front of us as a School Committee, I try and collect as much data as possible and allow that data to inform potential policy changes as well as collaborative discussions and debate within the Committee.

Question #3: Please cite one specific concern about special education in Natick that you are aware of and how you would advance it if elected.  

This year has been historically challenging for everyone. In Natick, as I’m sure is the case in other districts, we have seen an increase in special education referrals and an increase in eligibility. The demand for services for all students has increased. This demand is not likely to diminish any time soon and we, as a district, have a commitment to those students who have started to receive special education services who, in other years, might not have been considered eligible. Budgets are always tight and I don’t think it’s profound to say that it would be great to be able to do and provide more but resources are and always will be limited. I am concerned that with the increased volume of students and their respective service needs, we will be challenged to not only maintain the level of service we’re providing, but also to increase service as inevitably, students will require more as they get re-adjusted to a full return to school in the coming year.

During this year, the entire SPED program had to be redesigned to accommodate our hybrid learning model. This program redesign has worked well for some families and not as well for other families. As we finish this year and prepare for next, we will need to work hard those families where it hasn’t worked well to improve the services for their children. One way to help bridge that gap is by offering compensatory services. It is great to offer opportunities for students to get the appropriate services but we need to make sure we are sympathetic to their social and emotional challenges, like we are for all kids, and make sure that during vacations and the summer, all of our children also have an opportunity to rest, recharge, and be ready to start school again in the fall.

If re-elected, I will continue to keep the focus on our students and their needs, make sure that we’ve turned over every stone to find every dollar possible, and where necessary, make the difficult decision to sacrifice important, but perhaps not critical, budget items in order to prioritize student services.
 

Catherine Brunell


Question #1: What is your explanation/understanding of inclusion and what do you think NPS can do to increase inclusive practices?


My understanding around inclusion is that a district’s educational practices are best when inclusion incurs throughout the school district. Students with learning differences should be incorporated into the learning and social experiences that their typically developing peers are having as much as the individual child’s circumstances will allow the child to benefit in an inclusive setting. This is both best practice and a federally mandated law (IDEA). Students learn the best when they are with their peers, at their home school as much as the needs of that child allow them to thrive in the home environment.  In addition, inclusion is a huge benefit to the school community at large. When all children are supported by daily practices that build authentic relationships within a classroom, skills like including others, listening, empathy, resilience, and kindness, we give all of our students the opportunity to practice life long skills that will benefit everyone.


As far as how NPS can increase their inclusive practices, that is the role of the administration, special educators and general education teachers to decide. They are the experts that have been hired with your tax dollars. My role on the school committee will be to hold them accountable to what they have decided is best and to ensure it aligns with the community’s priorities. I will ask questions and request data to discover if we are in fact doing what we say we are doing:

  • What is the district’s vision of and the policies to support inclusion?

  • How are those policies funded? Is the money being used most efficiently based on industry standards and outcomes for our students? Have we hit our mark or do we need more?

  • Knowing that inclusion for our students first necessitates relationships among our staff, do we track how often our special ed teachers and general ed teachers meet?  How much time do they have to plan together? What do those numbers look like historically? Do we have policies in place to support the high level of communication that is needed between the adults assisting the child?

  • What is the experience of our students in inclusive settings? Does it change when one looks at age, gender, race or ethnicity? What is the experience of our families overall?

  • What do our special educators and general ed teachers indicate as needs and are we meeting those? 

  • What % of our students are in sub separate classrooms? And how often do those students interact with their peers and in what capacities?  Have we seen any of that data change in the last decade and what is our thinking around any historical trends that we might see? 

  • To what extent are we seeing participation of students with disabilities in sports, theatre, and after school clubs?

  • When a student leaves our district for an out of district placement, how often does the child return?


As a school committee member, I will make learning about our special education program a priority in both my own skill building as well as in the way in which I approach any budget and policy making decisions.


Question #2:  If a parent approached you with a concern about special education in Natick and claimed it was a systemic problem, what would you do?


First, I would listen and thank the parent for reaching out. Then as I worked to learn more about the themes in the experience that the family described, I would ensure that the parent also knew how to utilize the communication procedures in place for our district - I’d like to know more about those procedures as well and learn how we communicate them to parents on a regular basis. I’d also like to know about the efficacy of our communication - for example, if it is through email - do the emails get opened? While I work at a systematic level to understand the parent’s concern, I would be sure that the parent knew his/her/their rights and how to contact their child’s teachers, principal and if need be the district's central administration. Because communication is a key area of our strategic plan, I will work to ensure that we are holding our district accountable to  operating with the most transparent and open procedures possible. 

   

On a systematic level, I will look for patterns and if they exist - consistent experiences that are problematic or those that are particularly celebratory - I will act upon them at the school committee level through policy development or budgetary decisions. 


Question #3:    Please cite one specific concern about special education in Natick that you are aware of and how you would advance it if elected. 


With your permission, I’d like to share two - first, a budget concern and then observations around our RTI (Response to Intervention) program. 


Budget: As someone who got involved in the School Committee meetings because of the cuts proposed to the budget last spring, I have spent hours trying to best understand our budget. With all of the Natick Public Schools accounts, and especially with special education, I would like to see a more clear picture presented by both the Administration and the School Committee. As I fought against the budget cuts last spring, I observed that one of the major reasons the fight was so protracted was that the district's presentation of the budget was not thorough in places or clear in others. Best practices include:

  • Budget sub committee meetings and minutes posted regularly

  • At a minimum, quarterly updates on spending (after the budget has been passed) with enough details where the public can be assured about spending 

  • Yearly re-evaluations of our priorities and how we are funding them. 


These are not major asks and I’m hopeful that any movement towards aligning our budgets to our priorities with clear communication about all of it will improve the experience of all of our students.


Response to Intervention:  This program is not within the scope of special education, per se, but it is related.  Through RTI, the district is providing specific skill development to support students who are not making progress with the content taught as is. The hope, as I have heard principals describe, is that with focused attention on one specific area, the specialist or teacher working with the student can begin to discern if the student was able to master the skill and move along with his or her peers or if the student needs more support. Sometimes this support could be with an additional 6 weeks RTI session, sometimes this could mean an evaluation for a disability. The district is not mandated to communicate about RTI in the same ways that they are around special education, but as a best practice, the communication - why a student enters RTI, what the support looks like, why they might leave the program or circle back through - could be better.     


Again, how this happens is not up to me, but I would ask probing questions to understand if the resources that we are putting towards RTI are being well used:

  • How many of our students move through RTI each year? 

  • What are the breakdowns at each school in age, gender, race and ethnicity? 

  • How long does each student on average remain in the program?  

  • What funding are we giving for the implementation of the RTI program as part of our general education program? 

  • How many students move from the RTI program eventually to an IEP or a 504? How long does that take on average? 

  • What is the teacher and family experience of the program? Are the programs doing what the district needs them to do based on student outcome data? 

  • What communication methods do we use within RTI and how effective are they?

  • Do the teachers have the support they need to support the students? 

  • Do the principals have the staff needed to run these programs? 

Shai Fuxman


Question #1: What is your explanation/understanding of inclusion and what do you think NPS can do to increase inclusive practices?


Inclusion in education means creating an environment where every member of the school community is welcomed, valued, and supported, regardless of who they are and what they are able to do. Inclusion goes hand in hand with equity—everyone gets what they need to be successful. Achieving inclusion and equity requires that all members of the school community do their part to create an inclusive environment, and that all appreciate the benefits of inclusion to the entire community—not just to those who have been previously excluded. Advocating for inclusion and equity has become a personal mission of mine as a parent with a child with special needs. I have personally experienced the pain and tears of seeing my daughter made to feel like she doesn’t belong. That is what inspired me to bring the cause of inclusion to my professional work, for example writing a paper about how to address cyberbullying among youth with disabilities (https://tinyurl.com/579xmzam). This work was featured on WGBH (https://tinyurl.com/yf5gybkr). I also participated in an international expert panel on inclusion for people with disabilities in the digital age (https://tinyurl.com/ymjq7ctk).

 

If re-elected, I will continue to advocate for inclusion by pushing for a K-12 framework for teaching specific social and emotional skills associated with inclusion through different academic subjects (literacy, history, social studies, civic education, world languages, etc.). Furthermore, I have and will continue to advocate for promoting the concept of the active bystander through education: all students should understand what their role is when they witness micro-aggressions, bullying, and other exclusionary behaviors. Lastly, I will continue to advocate for inclusionary practices in the sphere of special education, such as co-taught classes—while cautioning that inclusionary practices should be carefully considered by the entire IEP team (including parents) to prevent unintended consequences.

 

Question #2:  If a parent approached you with a concern about special education in Natick and claimed it was a systemic problem, what would you do?


I would carefully listen to their concern and determine what is the best plan of action. I would also relate as a fellow parent of a child with special needs. After just a few years into my family’s journey through special education I, too, concluded that many of the struggles we were facing were not unique to my daughter or to my family. The issues were part of systemic problems at both the district and state level. That is why I chose to join SEPAC and eventually chair its board; it is why I took on the role of co-chair of the MA Department of Education’s (DESE) Special Education Advisory Council (a role I continue to hold); and it is one of the reasons I chose to run for School Committee. I am proud of the track record I have in working to address systemic challenges related to special education including: advising DESE on the new guidance document they are soon to release about dyslexia, improving the process by which NPS collects input from parents after IEP meetings, and advocating for special education supports and services during the current pandemic. If a parent shared a concern related to a systemic problem, I would use the various channels at my disposal to figure out, first, if the problem is indeed systemic, and second, if so how to work with the right people both in Natick and at DESE to address it.

 

Question #3:    Please cite one specific concern about special education in Natick that you are aware of and how you would advance it if elected. 


The most frustrating challenge I keep hearing from parents is the amount of time and effort it takes to have the district recognize students’ disabilities. Too many parents have talked about detecting their children’s disabilities relatively early—be it autism, dyslexia, ADHD, or other learning disabilities—only to have district representatives delay their recognition of these disabilities, needlessly extending the wait time for the child to receive the necessary supports. Though I know we are making progress in this area as a district, it continues to be a critical challenge. Regardless of the disability, early identification and support leads to better long-term outcomes. Part of the solution is better detection tools, which social scientists are slowly achieving (e.g., better screeners for autism, dyslexia, ADHD, etc.). The other part is better communication and trust between parents and district staff. I will continue to advocate for better communication as a School Committee member.