Northampton superintendent: Elementary schools performing well under new inclusion model

  • Northampton Superintendent John Provost. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

@BeraDunau
Published: 2/12/2018 11:11:11 PM

NORTHAMPTON —  Students in the district’s four schools are performing well 90 school days into the rollout of a new special education model, despite recent controversy over its implementation at Bridge Street School.

That was the takeaway from Superintendent John Provost’s presentation to the School Committee last week, though he said that no one factor could be definitely credited for this.

“The combination of factors seems to be having a net positive effect on student learning,” he said, although he acknowledged that this assessment did not apply to every student or class.

The new special education model, called Welcoming Inclusive Northampton Schools, involves educating all children with special needs alongside their peers without them.

While supported in concept, teachers have raised concerns that the model at Bridge Street School isn’t working because of insufficient staffing.

In January, the Northampton Association of School Employees filed a grievance alleging an unsafe work environment at Bridge Street. The union called for more staff at the school as part of the grievance. The School Committee rejected the grievance at the end of January. The union has not decided whether to take the grievance to arbitration, but will meet about it this week.

Superintendent’s talk

Provost’s presentation before the School Committee last Thursday took a snapshot of the program at the 90-day mark, and not at where it was when the inclusion model was first rolled out. He said adjustments have been made since those first two months.

Provost also acknowledged the limitations of the report. Notably, he pointed out that it is not known how each of the new factors affecting the children have impacted the data, including students having different teachers from last year.

“This is really a policy study rather than an empirical study,” he said. “We’re just trying to evaluate the impact of the new learning conditions at this time without trying to make very precise judgments.”

Provost’s presentation examined oral reading fluency, a reading test, number sense fluency and nurse office visits from the beginning of the school year through mid-January.

Aside from the reading test, comparisons were made between this school year and last school year for the same groups of students from one grade to the next.

In oral reading, the data showed median fluency increases in 11 groups of students and a decrease in four groups.

In numeracy, the data showed increases in average performance in 10 of 12 groups.

The reading test is given to all students in the fall and again in the winter to those students who scored below their grade level. Almost all students who retook the test this year experienced growth, Provost reported.

On the nurses office visits, Provost said that Leeds was the only elementary school to see an increase in nurses office visits.

“I can’t say that ... our data, produced for us by our nurses … supports the idea that students are being injured at any higher rate than in the past,” Provost said.

The superintendent gave additional study to nurse visits at Bridge Street where there have been a number of complaints about student and teacher injuries, a fact that was included in the grievance filed by the union.

While he noted that there was an increase in visits involving injuries at Bridge Street, Provost looked at specific injuries that involved conflicts between people, specifically human bites, poking and fighting. He also looked at the severity of injury, including concussions. These numbers showed an increase in poking incidents, but no other increase in any of the other injury categories.

At the end of his presentation, Provost had suggestions for moving forward, one of which was balancing advocacy and inquiry.

“Unrestrained advocacy really shuts down the ability for people to hear each other,” he said, suggesting moving the advocacy volume down and the inquiry volume up.

Parents voice concerns

Prior to Provost speaking, two Bridge Street parents highlighted issues they had with the school.

Leigh Graham said that parent advocacy had uncovered deep challenges, and called for equitable and effective staffing at the school.

Bridge Street parent Alla Katsnelson’s commentary was even starker.

“We feel betrayed by the school district,” she said.

She described the WINS inclusion model as a massive budget cut dressed up in social justice garb, and that it had done a disservice to the idea of inclusion.

“I find this deeply deeply sad,” she said.

Andrea Egitto, a chapter coordinator for school union NASE, announced at the meeting that a petition is being circulated among all school employees asking that the school hire additional staffing at Bridge Street School.

“Funding Bridge Street School at the expense of other schools is not an acceptable solution,” said Egitto.

She also said that good things were still going on in the schools, but that a need was not being met under the model.

Ellen Brown, who teaches first grade at Jackson Street Elementary School, said that this year was the most challenging since her early years as a teacher.

“This is not my idea of inclusion,” she said.

She also gave suggestions for how the WINS model should be changed next year.

Liz Bowen, a teacher who does not work in Northampton, said that it’s important to look at how data is being chosen when it differs from what teachers experience.

“To me that means there’s something wrong with our data,” she said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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