School council airs efforts to address Bridge Street woes

@BeraDunau @dustyc123
Published: 1/26/2018 12:36:35 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A meeting of the Bridge Street School Council Thursday night detailed current and planned efforts to deal with issues that have arisen from the rolling out of a new special education model at Bridge Street School.

All elementary schools in Northampton have rolled out a new version of the inclusion model this year, which involves teaching students with disabilities in the same classrooms as their non-disabled peers.

The implementation of the model at Bridge Street has resulted in an environment that both teachers and parents have described as chaotic. There have also been allegations of injuries to both students and teachers.

More staff has been a central demand of the Northampton Association of School Employees, which represents staff at Northampton schools.

NASE has filed a grievance with the School Committee alleging an unsafe work environment at Bridge Street, and demanding that new staff be hired immediately.

Thursday’s meeting featured numerous questions from Bridge Street parents, and came in the wake of both a meeting of administrators and Bridge Street teachers on Wednesday and an unsigned letter purporting to be from a Bridge Street teacher that was widely circulated among parents prior to the meeting.

Circulated to families via email and Facebook, the letter details the alleged failures of administrators to fully respond to the school’s problems.

“It is difficult for families to know the truth, when that truth is being spun by multiple administrators singing the same song. Now the song is that through talking, brainstorming, and rearranging we have solved the problem,” the letter reads. “It might be a pretty song, but it is not the truth.”

The anonymous writer urged parents to take up the call for additional, more permanent and better-trained staff.

“Talk will not solve a fundamental need for consistent, trained, therapeutic staff who can create a program of support for our high need students who do not yet have the skills or ability to independently and successfully manage the big class all day. Teachers have tried. We have not been heard. Parents need to step up and demand what our students need. Accept nothing less,” said the letter, urging parents to attend meetings, ask questions and write letters.

The letter was directly addressed at the start of Thursday’s meeting by Lori Shine, a parent representative on the Bridge Street School Council, an advisory body made up of teachers, parents, a community member and the principal.

Shine asserted that nothing was being done to whitewash the situation at Bridge Street.

“It isn’t true that we think we’ve solved the problem,” Shine said.

Addressing the call for additional staff, she said that such an effort is being made in the planning for next school year’s budget.

In part of the meeting Roni Gold, another parent on the council, talked about some of the statistics Bridge Street parents had been sent in two letters about the school’s funding in comparison to other schools in the district. The first was sent Jan. 18 and provided the comparisons, while the second was sent Thursday and did not include data from preschool programs, as they have more students with disabilities by design.

The data show that Bridge Street School has both the most students with disabilities and the most funding going toward special education expenditures.

Parent Deborah Keisch said that as a social scientist she uses data all the time, but that the human element can be obscured by it.

“People get lost,” she said.

She also said that the Bridge Street teachers are in need of assistance.

“Our teachers are struggling and they need help,” she said.

Another parent, Rachael Smith-Ramos, said the data shown weren’t telling her too much, because the information wasn’t revealing the depth of need of different students with disabilities.

“I don’t know what the degree of need is,” she said.

Bridge Street previously housed many of the district’s self-contained special education programs.

On the budget, Superintendent John Provost said it looks like Northampton schools can’t expect much help from the state next year, and that the increase from the city will mostly be used to cover salary increases. As such, he said any increase in aid to Bridge Street will have to come from other Northampton schools.

Bridge Street School Principal Beth Choquette said Wednesday’s meeting with teachers and administrators had featured good brainstorming. Choquette, however, said no one is saying the problem is solved.

In response to a question from parent Cindy Mahoney, Choquette said the school was also open to moving away from the co-teaching model of inclusion, in favor of having roving special education teachers.

Choquette also revealed that two new hires were recently made at Bridge Street.

Parent Annie Salsich said recent conversations around Bridge Street issues sound productive, and asked how parents can keep the process going. She also said she really values hearing from the teachers directly.

Parent Jonathan Brody, meanwhile, said there needs to be a strategic plan for next year in place. He also suggested utilizing some of the area resources, such as interns from the University of Massachusetts and Smith College.

“Absolute brilliant idea,” said Dan Peters, in reaction to Brody’s suggestion.

As for the demand for new funding for this year’s budget to deal with Bridge Street issues, such a move would have to come through a special appropriation from the city. When asked about this Wednesday, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who also chairs the School Committee, said such an appropriation has not been requested by Provost.

Narkewicz did note, however, that the budget process for next fiscal year would officially kick off on Tuesday, at a special joint meeting between the School Committee and City Council at JFK Middle School.

This story has been updated. 



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