Parents, superintendent react to Bridge Street School issues

  • The exterior of Bridge Street School is shown Oct. 27, 2017 in Northampton.

Friday, January 12, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — Issues with the implementation of a new special education inclusion model at Bridge Street School were front and center in the public comment period at the School Committee’s Thursday meeting by teachers and parents.

“With a new program bumps are to be expected, but not a consistent, systemic failure,” said Cindy Mahoney, a Bridge Street parent of a special needs student.

At issue is the rollout of the model at the school, which parents and a teacher’s union say has caused classroom chaos and injuries. The problems have led the Northampton Association of School Employees, which represents teachers and staff in Northampton schools, to file a grievance at Bridge Street, saying that the workplace environment is unsafe and calling for new hires immediately.

Superintendent John Provost said that while there are issues that need to be addressed at Bridge Street, he pushed back against the narrative that it was a dangerous place.

“I really don’t think it’s fair for NASE to portray Bridge Street as unsafe for staff,” he said.

The meeting, which drew a packed house, fell on the same day as a Daily Hampshire Gazette article on the issue. That article was featured in the remarks of some of the speakers, as well as in Provost’s comments.

The committee later went into executive session to address the union’s grievance.

The inclusion model refers to educating special needs students in the same classrooms as their non-special needs peers.

Inclusion was rolled out in Northampton’s elementary school’s this year. However, it also coincided with the elimination of 19 educational support positions, along with the addition of 5.5 special education teachers and one general education teacher.

Parents and teachers at Bridge Street have alleged that the staffing reductions have left students overwhelmed and unable to deal with the increased demands of the inclusion model. They also say that this has resulted in a spike in violent incidents against students and teachers at the school.

Mary Johnson said that the article informed her that other people were having similar issues as her daughter, a Bridge Street kindergartner.

“She’s getting physically hurt,” she said, saying this happens because of an aggressive child.

Mahoney said that the implementation of the model has been reactive as opposed to proactive.

“An approach my grandmother would call bass ackwards,” she said.

There was no call at the meeting to get rid of the inclusion model, though a constant ask was for more support.

“They need special support for children who have special needs,” said Johnson.

“These kids can succeed everywhere, if they’re given the resources,” said parent Annie Salsich.

Salsich said her child is doing well at the school, but was struggling with seeing what was going on.

Superintendent speaks

In his remarks, Provost took issue with NASE speaking about the grievance, first filed in the fall, to the Gazette. Indeed, he said that the union violated grievance procedures in sending its complaint directly to the media.

On the issue of danger, he said that Northampton schools get 26 to 46 workers compensation claims a school year based off students acting violently toward teachers and staff, and that many years Bridge Street has the most claims. This school year, he said the district has received 19 such claims.

“It’s a rate that’s comparable to prior years,” he said.

He also said that the budget has been reorganized to prioritize Bridge Street.

Provost asserted that the original allocations were responsible, noting that Bridge Street has the highest staffing levels in the district.

“We did that because we know it has the highest needs in the district,” he said.

Provost then noted that Bridge Street has 53 fewer students than Jackson Street, but five more education support professionals, and 46 fewer students than Leeds, but has more licensed staff. Additionally, he said that it has the smallest class sizes in the district, and was shielded from the new students coming into the district from Puerto Rico this year.

“We didn’t want to add to the need,” he said.

Provost said that while he has seen student aggression at Bridge Street this year, it was no different from incidents he’s seen in other schools.

“Mostly I’ve seen teaching and learning (at Bridge Street),” he said.

Still, Provost did say that he took responsibility for letting the number of special education programs concentrate at Bridge Street.

“I’m sorry that I allowed that to build up,” he said. “And I’m sorry that unwinding it is obviously causing so much pain.”