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Parents see growing pains with ‘chaotic’ first-grade classes at Bridge Street School

  • The exterior of Bridge Street School is shown Friday in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Bridge Street School Northampton. CAROL LOLLIS

  • KEVIN GUTTINGBridge Street School first graders, including in the front row, Avery Lewis, left, Sydney Smith, Ava Willard and Miles Toulson-Wimmer, sit together two to a desk as part of a re-enactment of a 1915 classroom to mark the school's 100th anniversary.KEVIN GUTTING PHOTOSBridge Street School first graders, including in the front row, Avery Lewis, left, Sydney Smith, Ava Willard and Miles Toulson-Wimmer, sit together two to a desk as part of a re-enactment of a 1915 classroom to mark the school’s 100th anniversary. KEVIN GUTTING

  • KEVIN GUTTINGBridge Street School first grader Jonah Van Der Woude was asked to stand in the corner for a minute after an imagined infraction (like chewing gum or giving the wrong answer) during a re-enactment of a 1915 classroom to mark the school's 100th anniversary. KEVIN GUTTING



@dustyc123
Friday, October 27, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — When Page Brody’s son started first grade at Bridge Street Elementary School this fall, Brody hoped he would flourish in his new classroom just as he had last year in kindergarten. Soon, however, her son was coming home anxious and overwhelmed, expressing anxiety about even walking into class.

Brody’s son, it seems, was far from alone. Brody said that beginning this school year, she and other first-grade parents and guardians started “swapping horror stories” — crowded classrooms, excessive noise and commotion, teachers seemingly stretched thin. They first started exchanging those concerns after school, and then over email as more joined in.

That email group now includes well over half of the school’s first-grade families, according to Brody, all of whom are concerned about the rollout of a new plan this year to place students receiving special education services into mainstream classrooms instead of being separated based on their needs. That plan led to the elimination of 19 educational support positions, and the addition of 5.5 special education teachers and one general education teacher. The two resulting first-grade classrooms, some parents say, have been disorderly at best.

“From the beginning of the year we, too, have seen significant signs of anxiety in my son, and given that he’s medically fragile you can imagine that that is not a position we want to find ourselves in,” Gillian Stephens, whose son is in the school’s autism program, said at an Oct. 13 School Committee meeting.

“In a room of 26 children, with the chaos and noise that goes with that, he’s really working hard just to make it through the day in the room, and he’s not the only one struggling in this way.”

At that same meeting, Brody said many parents are supportive of the inclusion model in theory, and applauded the teachers who have worked hard to make it work. But implementation, she said, has been rocky, negatively affecting students who need special education services as well as those who do not, like her own son.

“We really feel like it was underplanned, and underfunded and understaffed,” Brody said.

District officials have responded quickly to those concerns in the first grade, and have already begun attempting to remedy the situation, according to Superintendent John Provost.

Provost said that early in the school year, the district provided professionals to monitor the plan’s implementation and assist classes with the new co-teaching model, including consultants from the firm Tate Behavioral. Provost said he himself has visited the school at least 17 times this school year.

“I think what we anticipated was that there would be problems with implementation, and that there would have been problems if we hadn’t made a change as well,” Provost said.

School adjustments

School and district officials have since reacted by adding two more staff members to the first grade — one educational support professional, who was already working in the school as a floating paraprofessional, and another behavioral interventionist who will soon be hired. And, this past weekend, Provost said the larger of the two first-grade classes was moved into a bigger classroom with help from more than a dozen parents.

In adding two new adults to the first grade, Pam Plumer, director of student services for the district, said the choice was either to have three first-grade classrooms with two teachers each, or two classrooms with three teachers each. Professionals from Tate Behavioral, she said, recommended the latter, as did the grade’s teachers.

“They really do believe the best way forward is two classrooms with three adults,” she said of the teachers. “We really wanted to value their voices and their expertise in understanding these students and their needs.”

Josh Dickson, associate director of student services, said another consideration in deciding to stick with two classrooms was to maintain the social-emotional connections that students had already developed with their teachers. Dickson was in the new, bigger classroom this week, and said the environment was already more positive for students’ social and academic development.

Many parents, however, felt that a third classroom would have been the better option to reduce student density, according to parent Leigh Graham.

As a college professor trained in urban studies and planning, Graham, her husband — also a planner — and an architect friend formed part of a design team that helped the school set up the two first-grade classrooms for the inclusion model’s implementation this year.

“I was really feeling kind of optimistic about this model from my experience over the summer,” she said. “I was really surprised when it turned out to be as chaotic as it has been.”

Because of that chaos, she said, students weren’t always receiving needed “pull-out” education, when students are removed from the mainstream classroom for part of the day for specialized instruction. That kind of differentiated learning was part of the new inclusion plan, but is difficult in the current situation, she said, though she was careful to note that she finds that situation to be no fault of the teachers.

Changing situation

Stephens, when she spoke at the previous School Committee meeting, suggested that “substantial re-writing of IEPs based on the new model” might even be needed, referring to the document that establishes educational goals and special education services tailored to individual students’ needs.

“This year has been tricky — the co-taught model and the inclusion of the special ed kids in the room has led to some spotty service when it comes to the implementation of the behavior plans that were written,” Stephens said. “But also given the change in the way that the rooms are structured, the plans that were written last year might not be relevant this year because the situation and circumstances in the room have changed.”

After the larger of the two classes, which has 25 students, was moved to a much larger classroom, Graham said those parents and teachers seemed “re-energized.” Her son, however, wasn’t in that class, and she wonders how things will play out for him and his 20 classmates.

“I don’t feel like my son’s first-grade classroom has gotten corresponding interventions and attention,” Graham said, wondering aloud what the results would be and describing her mood as “pessimistic.” This week, students have only been at school for half days, so next week will begin the true test of how those interventions work, she said.

“We are holding out hope that this change will be a change for the better,” Brody, whose son has been moved to the new classroom, said. “Whether it will solve all the issues — we’re a little skeptical.”

Sufficient staff

Provost said the district will continue to problem-solve if the interventions aren’t seen to be effective.

“We are committed to a problem-solving process,” Provost said, adding that there is sufficient staffing for a three-classroom approach. “However, at this point, we strongly believe that the two-classroom model is better.”

To monitor behavioral progress, he said, school officials will continue to use standard tracking metrics as well as others like office referrals and nurse reports.

Concerned parents have also pulled together budget numbers, and say that per-pupil spending is less at Bridge Street than in the city’s three other elementary schools, despite the fact that the school has the largest portion of high-needs students — a category defined as students with disabilities, from low-income families or who are English-language learners.

In the past three budget cycles, Provost said, he has directed the majority of additional funds toward the elementary schools, which he believes all require more funding.

“Achieving a fair and equitable budget at all of the schools in the district is a very high priority,” he said. “But it is a process that has to evolve over a number of budget cycles.”

Whatever the case, questions over spending and special education are unlikely to go away.

“One of the things that I had explained to the School Committee as we were looking at this new staffing model is that we are preparing for a high-needs future,” Provost said, describing how Northampton and the state as a whole are seeing increasingly larger percentages of high-needs students. “This first grade is a good example of what the high-needs future may be.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.