Changes in special education, new preschool mark upcoming school year

Published: 8/16/2016 7:43:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The beginning of another school year has a lot in store for students in Northampton’s public schools with a new preschool, updated facilities and a new special education model.

With a budget increase of 2.75 percent, just shy of $28 million, and increasing enrollment, the district is prepared to grow and adapt to serve its students, said Superintendent John Provost.

Special education changes

Northampton High School will implement a new model for special education this year, focusing more on the needs of individual students, according to school officials. 

Students with special education needs will have access to “a new menu of courses,”  Bryan Lombardi, the high school principal, said. Rather than isolate students in a separate special education program, students can take adjusted classes in particular subjects.

“Before I had three teachers with a separate program,” Lombardi said. “Now we’re able to offer a menu of courses with not only those three teachers but others in the building with other instruction in smaller classes, as well as access to other courses in the building.”

The new model will replace the Alternative Learning Program, but will not involve reductions in budget or staff. 

Classes will teach the same curriculum as the general education classes but with augmented methods that include slower pacing or adaptive technologies.

“What we know from research is that it’s best practice to have students in classes where full curriculum is being taught as much as possible,” said Student Services Director Laurie Farkas.

The philosophy behind individualized programming originates in special education, Provost said, but it’s an approach the district is trying to take throughout all its schools.

“The district has an obligation to design individualized education programs,” Provost said.

“One of the things you need to do is not attempt to fit kids into pre-designed models but to make the model fit the kids,” he said.

New preschool

A new preschool is being added at Leeds Elementary School, including all-day options for four-year-olds, Provost said. The expansion was made due to heavy booking at Bridge Street School, which filled completely with half-day programming in preschool and also had growing numbers in its kindergarten.

Many facilities in the district got “facelifts” in preparation for the upcoming year, Provost said.

The Northampton High School cafeteria has been renovated to mirror a college dining environment, complete with high-top tables and other amenities.

The gymnasium floors are being replaced in Northampton High School and John F. Kennedy Middle School.

The middle school floor should be completed before the beginning of the school year, and the high school floor shortly thereafter.

The high school baseball and softball fields were overhauled at the high school, and the tennis courts and outdoor basketball courts were resurfaced at the middle school.

The district also purchased 225 new computers which will be dispersed throughout the district, making the student-to-computer ratio roughly equal in every school, Provost said.

District improvement plan

At open houses last year, more than 300 parents were asked to respond on paper to a question that asked what Northampton public schools should be helping students with most. 

The responses will be analyzed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the exercise was an effort to improve communication and get a clear picture of what the district should focus on, Provost said.

As it enters its second year of a district improvement plan, school officials want to confer with students, parents and educators on its processes and what needs to be improved in the school district. 

Part of this begins with action research, Provost said, a strategy where teachers consider issues they see in the field and come up with ways to confront them.

“My hope is to have several action research projects growing in the district where teachers have a chance to participate and learn from the process,” Provost said. “I hope in a larger sense it will help the community understand how we make decisions as educators.”

Evaluation and adaptability are essential to serving the needs of the district, Farkas said.

“The changes that are happening in our student body are significant,” Farkas said.

“And just like any organization or business we need to be always looking at that for changes that are coming up.”


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