Northampton superintendent outlines dramatic special ed overhaul

  • KEVIN GUTTINGJohn Provost is the new superintendent of Northampton Public Schools. KEVIN GUTTING

  • ESL teacher Garrett Adams responds to the plan put forward by Superintendent John Provost during a School Committee meeting on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. —Amanda Drane

  • ESP Tolley Jones responds to the plan put forward by Superintendent John Provost during a School Committee meeting on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. —Amanda Drane

  • Director of Student Services Laurie Farkas responds to the plan put forward by Superintendent John Provost during a School Committee meeting on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. —Amanda Drane

Published: 2/24/2017 12:55:41 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The superintendent is proposing a major overhaul of elementary school staffing in the district to address what many are calling “our high needs future.”

The plan floated at Thursday’s School Committee meeting by Superintendent John Provost calls for the elimination of 32 paraprofessional positions and the addition of 9.5 special education teachers. The plan is Provost’s preferred path, though he also presented an alternative idea.

If his recommended plan is approved, students receiving special education services would integrate into mainstream classrooms and each classroom would receive a special education teacher as a secondary teacher.

The proposal comes, Provost said, because the high needs population jumped 49 percent over the last three years. And those students, separated from traditional classrooms, are overwhelmingly male students of color who are on reduced lunch.

Because the spike is so drastic, Provost said the district’s current model is no longer adequate.

“This looks like something that is jumping off the page,” he said, showing a bar graph.

Parents and teachers who spoke in public comment following the presentation had serious concerns about the proposal. Some said it felt far too rushed to make this happen in the coming academic year, and others were worried that the move would unduly increase class sizes.

Others pointed out that the district’s ESPs are racially diverse and wanted to know how the district would make up for that loss.

Several asked Provost and the committee to keep the educational support professionals, or ESPs, asserting that such a transition would require more support, not less.

“Probably about 85 percent of my job is talking kids off their daily ledge, helping kids who had a bad day,” said Tolley Jones, an ESP at Leeds Elementary School. “This model feels like an enormous lack of respect.”

Others asked why make such a risky change if it’s not absolutely necessary.

“I live and breathe inclusion in our classrooms every day — that’s what I do,” said Garrett Adams, an ESL teacher at Jackson Street and Bridge Street schools. “I want to be sure we don’t try to fix something that’s not broken.”

But fixed costs are outpacing revenue growth, Provost said, and state aid is on the decline. He said the plan does not increase class sizes overall, and each classroom will be receiving another teacher. He said this is the way forward to address the growing needs of the district, which mirror statewide trends.

“This is the public’s money. It’s not my money,” he said. “I’m pointing out what the tradeoffs are — tradeoffs we may regret.”

Some asked in public comment if the city could provide more money, but Mayor David Narkewicz it’s more complicated than that. School costs are rising, especially in regard to health care and charter school reimbursement, he said, and state aid is flat. He said the city already requested and received an override in 2013, and this tightening of the belt comes in response to that plan tapering off.

“We’ll try to make it last as long as we can, but eventually we’re going to hit the cliff,” he said. “That’s what we’re starting to feel.”

Alternative plan

Provost did put forward an alternative plan, acknowledging it does nothing to address the growing need.

The plan calls for a cut of $75,000 to special education in the elementary schools, $50,000 for an elementary school librarian, $11,000 in athletic equipment, $25,000 in academic materials, among other cuts.

As someone who began his career as an ESP, Provost said that the proposal to cut the 32 ESP positions does not come lightly. He’d like to make the transition more “humane,” he said, by retaining 14 of the 32 ESPs as school-based subs who would retain their benefits in pay. That would only be for the first year, he said, and after that he could hopefully hire them to replace those lost through attrition.

“I really respect the work that you do — you do the work that teachers won’t do,” Provost told the ESPs. “I definitely respect that.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at

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