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At special meeting Friday, teachers, parents plea for more help at Bridge Street School

  • Bridge Street Elementary School.



@BeraDunau
Monday, January 15, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — Bridge Street School teachers delivered a resounding message to administrators Friday — we need help.

While the educators who attended a special meeting called by the superintendent and principal said they agree with the practice of educating special needs children in the same classrooms as their peers who do not have special needs, they insisted that more staff is needed to make this model work at Bridge Street.

“All we’re asking is for more help for these kids,” said one teacher, who choked up as she spoke. “They’re not succeeding, and no one’s listening or acting.”

The so-called special education inclusion model launched this school year at all of the district’s elementary schools has drawn criticism from Bridge Street parents and teachers who allege that its implementation has created a chaotic environment at the school. Injuries to students have also been reported, and teachers say they too have been injured.

This situation has caused the Northampton Association of School Employees, the union that represents workers in Northampton schools, to file a grievance alleging an unsafe work environment, and calling for the hiring of more staff immediately.

Friday’s meeting was called for Bridge Street parents to address concerns after an article in the Gazette this week outlined the grievances, which were also brought up during public comment at Thursday’s School Committee meeting.

A lot of distress was expressed at the meeting, both by parents and by teachers. There were also calls for communication and solutions.

Superintendent John Provost and Principal Beth Choquette expressed sympathy for the concerns shared at the meeting and assured those assembled that work was being done to address the issues, including the addition of two staff members. However, Provost also said that the school system was constrained by budget realities.

“Every penny that we’ve been able to squeeze from the budget has been directed to Bridge Street,” said Provost, before acknowledging that a small amount of spare funds were also directed to Jackson Street.

A common theme among the teachers was that they supported inclusion, but needed more staff and support to make it happen efficiently.

“I’m all for inclusion,” said Maryellen Bradley-Gilbert, a special education co-teacher at Bridge Street, who also serves as support staff for special education there.

She said inclusion is not a new practice at Bridge Street, but that the model rolled out this year has stretched resources too thin.

Another teacher said she was the only person who suffered a concussion this school year, in reference to the Gazette article using the word “concussions” in plural. Union members interviewed later declined to name the teacher.

The reference to concussions in the Gazette’s reporting drew from the NASE complaint itself.

“Students and faculty members have reported injuries (including concussions) due to aggressive/assaultive behavior, and have seen the school nurse and/or visited their doctor or the emergency room,” the compliant states.

Bridge Street School nurse Jessica LaCroix said that numerous students have been hurt this school year.

“Since September ... there have been many injuries,” she said. “There have been kids being hurt and teachers being hurt in front of kids.”

“Kids don’t really flinch anymore,” she continued. “Even when somebody hurts them.”

Choquette said that she valued how the teachers were feeling, and said that they were working very hard. Toward the end of the meeting, she also acknowledged that teachers didn’t feel like they were heard when the new model was planned out last year.

Provost added that he will continue efforts to direct funding to Bridge Street in next year’s budget. He noted that the current school budget is running a deficit, with the hope being that the city’s solar project deal will close it.

Support for the faculty was apparent among the parents in attendance.

“As a parent, I just appreciate every teacher who spoke today,” said one parent, a remark that drew heavy applause from those assembled.

She went on to call for an increase in taxes in Northampton to address the issues at Bridge Street.

“Frankly, our taxes are too low,” she said.

Another parent called for an override to raise taxes.

Parent Annie Salsich expressed her worry that the end result of the Bridge Street issues would be an abandonment of inclusion, although she said that she was not hearing that from teachers.

“I want to show him (her non-special needs son) what inclusion can really, truly look like,” she said.

Parent and member of the Bridge Street School Council Roni Gold repeatedly called for a planning session between administrators and teachers to find solutions.

“I think that it just takes getting the right people to the table,” he said.

Parent Jonathan Brody called for a data and evidence-based approach, and accountability to that.

“Go to the research,” Brody said.

Later on, Provost noted that some decisions are not data driven, such as the community’s preference for smaller class sizes. Indeed, he said that this preference helped direct the creation of the new inclusion model.

Andrea Egitto, a chapter coordinator for NASE, said that the situation is not a matter of planning but of resources.

“The budget is already in a deficit,” she said. “The only way to fix that is to get more money from the city.”

For some, however, the damage may already be done.

A parent who used to teach at Bridge Street and who bought her house so that her children could walk to the school said that her children will not be going there next year.

“They won’t be coming here,” she said. “And you are going to have a mass exodus of parents who are invested in  their children’s well-being.”

Editor’s Note: This story was changed on Jan. 15, 2018, to clarify that Roni Gold is a member of the council, not the president.