Thursday, January 20, 2011

SEPAC Meeting Minutes, Jan 11, 2011

Georgetown SEPAC - Special Education Parent Advisory Council

Meeting Minutes, January 11, 2011 -
School Personnel Attendees: David Dempsey, Eileen Lee, Kim Leonard, Bill Adams, Karla Sciuto. Several parents were also present. Dinner served: Green Salad, Pasta Marinara, & Chocolate Cake for Dessert.

Georgetown SEPAC (Special Education Parent Advisory Council) Meeting
Welcome to the Georgetown PAC: You are cordially invited to a student-prepared Spagetti Dinner, Salad & Dessert on Tuesday evening, January 11, 2011, 6pm, at the GMHS! RSVP please for dinner to Margaret O’Hare, Special Ed Admin Asst. 978-352-5790 x539. Join us afterwards for discussions regarding the pre-referral process, the District Accommodation Plan, Special Education program profiles, program-specific parent advisory committees, or other topics of general interest. The Georgetown PAC provides informational resources, support and networking to parents of children with special needs from preschool through high school. We also work closely with the Georgetown Public School administration to advise and assist with the development of the best possible special education programs for our children. School administrators, including our Director of Special Education, David Dempsey, will be present. Please come, introduce yourself and share with us how the Georgetown PAC can begin to help you to work with the schools to help and assist your special needs child. For more information, please contact Pam Lundquist, 978-352-5407. Also look for the Georgetown SEPAC on Facebook or Please also find GeorgetownCARES, a community youth substance abuse prevention coalition, at

Agenda Discussion Topics:
The Pre-Referral Process, The District Accommodation Plan/Modifications & Accommodations
Program development, Program-Specific Parent Advisory Committees, and MCAS.

A BIG THANKS to our Life Skills Class for preparing a super-delicious marinara pasta dinner for us all! Together with a salad and rich chocolate cake dessert, the meal was a special one, greatly enjoyed by everyone! All contributions were greatly appreciated! What talented students we have!

After dinner, all attending parents and special education staff participated in a lively, constructive dialog. Topics included data gathering for student histories, school-to-school breakdowns in communication, the nature of the pre-referral process, the need for coordinated and consistent efforts in the way (specialized) instruction is matched to individual student learning styles. As Mr. Dempsey noted, “The most successful districts in special education are distinguished by consistent practices, protocols, and commonly understood philosophies.”

Meeting attendees discussed ideas and observations in correspondence with the above agenda/discussion topics:

The Pre-referral process was clarified to be technically an area of regular education, comprising all of the steps that are taken before a student is determined to be eligible for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

The first person a parent who is concerned about their child’s in-school struggles should contact would be the child’s teacher. The teacher will discuss any difficulties the child is having with the parent. After reviewing the student’s educational strengths and weaknesses, the parent and teacher will agree on a plan of helpful action to be implemented in the classroom. The teacher will record all observations and determine whether the changes are working effectively for the child. Suggestions as to how a parent could support a child at home academically could also be made. A follow up meeting should be scheduled to discuss progress and future steps.

If the agreed upon interventions or accommodations have not helped the student achieve academic progress, a Student Assessment Team (SAT), including the regular education teacher, a special education professional, guidance counselors, or any relevant specialist instructors, will meet to gather and evaluate all student history data. They will confer and recommend classroom interventions and alternative strategies to try to help a student. If the SAT’s recommended strategies are not effective, the referral of the student for a special education evaluation should be considered.

The District Accommodation Plan is a resource in development to provide teachers and parents access to ideas for effective classroom interventions and strategies, matched to particular types of student struggles, that can be implemented by regular or special education teachers. It will serve as a helpful guide – a toolbox - to match regular education, 504, and IEP students who struggle with effective accommodations such as organizational strategies, changes in the physical environment, new instructional materials, graphic organizers, study material summaries, testing arrangements, use of peer tutoring, and so forth. Strategic classroom accommodations may also include multi-modal ways to present curricular materials or finding more appropriate ways for your child to demonstrate what he or she has learned. All of our interventions are aimed at finding ways to teach skills and strategies that will help our students be successful, independent learners in school.

When some type of classroom strategy or intervention has been made, four to six weeks is generally considered an appropriate time to determine whether an accommodation is effective for a struggling child. If a child continues to have difficulty, a referral for special education evaluation should be considered.

Typically, the steps involved in the process of identifying, evaluating & placing children in special education programs may go as follows:
• A concerned teacher or parent sounds the alarm.
• The teacher and parent discuss classroom changes, interventions or accommodations to implement to help the child. If they do not work,
• The student is referred for initial assessment by the Student Assessment Team (SAT).
• The SAT evaluates standardized test scores & classroom performance to further determine appropriate supportive intervention and accommodations. If they do not work,
• The SAT determines suitability for further testing and/or a Special Education Referral for evaluation.
• The student is referred for a comprehensive diagnostic assessment.
• The school psychologist or other specialists if appropriate, such as a speech and language specialist, administer a battery of tests.
• An Individual Educational Plan (IEP) conference is scheduled.
• The qualified child is placed in an appropriate special education program.
• A child who does not qualify as eligible for special education (including a 504 plan) will be followed and supported by the Student Assessment Team (SAT) until the struggles are resolved.

A parent, a teacher or other professional can make a referral for special education evaluation at any time. Providing instructional support cannot be used to delay the evaluation of a student. If a student is referred for an evaluation, the documentation by the teacher and/or Student Assessment Team of the student’s struggles and the classroom accommodations already documented will constitute valuable data and be part of the evaluation information reviewed by the Special Education Department.

Referrals are made by contacting the principal or the school's administrator of special education and asking for an evaluation for special education services eligibility. No matter who makes a referral, the parent must give consent in writing before a special education evaluation can begin. Federal Law requires eligibility be determined within 60 days of the parental consent. The school must contact you within five school days of receiving the referral asking for your written permission to begin the evaluation.

To be eligible for special education, 1) a child must have a disability (in one of ten areas as defined by the US Department of Education), 2) must not be making effective progress as a result of his/her disability, and 3) must need special education services and related services in order to make effective progress. If a child has a disability but is not eligible for special education under IDEA, he or she may be eligible for protections under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. 
The student evaluation should examine all areas of suspected disability and provide a detailed description of your child's educational needs. Not every child with a difficulty or disability qualifies or would benefit from an IEP. And not every difficulty is caused by a disability.

The DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) Program Review was very helpful, all school staff agreed. “We need to know what to fix before we can fix it, now we have a clear plan,” said David Dempsey. Kim Leonard added, “The reviewers shared with us several best practices that we have incorporated into the way we do things, such as how we record data, that have been helpful.” David Dempsey observed, “We have a lot of very good protocols and practices in place already, and we are striving to use them consistently throughout the district, so that everyone shares a common language and understanding. The DESE confirmed for us the importance of several initiatives which we had been and are currently working hard on. We know that failure is not an option on our follow-through. All of our children deserve the best in support and services, and that is what we will provide.”

Bill Adams noted, “Understanding our special-needs students requires looking beneath the surface. Kids who struggle develop amazing coping strategies, some of them constructive, some of them self-defeating. Students will try to hide their struggles, deny their struggles, or manifest behavior designed to take the focus off their difficulties that confuse some adults. We have to help them to feel safe with us, to let them know that we care and we accept their struggles as something all people have in common, in one form or another. When we meet their defensive behavior with support for the student as a person, let them know that we are here to help them, great progress can be made. But not everyone who deals directly with students has had the training to recognize the best response to these kids, how to relate to them in a way that will make a helpful difference.”

Bill Adams further commented, “The learning that can take place with word association and mathematical games is enormous. When you provide for students a fun experience that makes them want to be involved while at the same time compelling them to use challenging strategies around language and numbers, even historical and scientific information, they make so much progress. Encouraging quick fast responses – in an environment where students feel safe and accepted and not alone in their challenge – helps advance their thinking processes. Incorporating such games into a curriculum to more effectively teach the material is not so simple though, it requires much thoughtful advance planning. Learning to do that is part of special education training, but integrating such appropriate games can also work as effective regular education. See how eager kids are to play screen games, add the educational component, and bingo! Kids win! Using games is one example of an area where general and special educators can learn much from each other, and need to learn to be on the same page about.”

David Dempsey explained, “Teachers need support and guidance – more tools - to better understand how to implement accommodations and differentiated instruction (based on students’ unique learning needs) with the goals of expanding a child’s mind, building inner strength and confidence in their abilities, and including the socialization piece. Mr. Pittella’s U2 game is an excellent example of a multi-modal way of teaching that kids really respond to – it builds skills, knowledge, and expands his students’ understanding of the world considerably. Our District Accommodation Plan will be able to help teachers develop their own successful strategies and lesson plans like that.”

“One research-based method to support all teachers in their ability to help students is called Response to Intervention (RTI) Plan. It structures two continuing processes – those of assessment and intervention - into a coordinated multi-level prevention system. Schools that implement this in a coordinated way are able to maximize student achievement and, incidentally, reduce behavior problems. With RTI protocols, schools identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, monitor student progress, provide evidence-based interventions and adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions depending on a student’s responsiveness. It provides real support for the identification of students with learning disabilities or other disabilities. I would like to get an RTI Plan into the Georgetown District at some point. An RTI plan could directly bolster student achievement by promoting data-based instructional decisions considerably.” More information on RTI can be found at

“Basically, we already have most of the pieces of a Response to Intervention (RTI) Plan in place, with our student assessment teams, our district accommodation plan, and our special education protocols and programs. At this point, it is a matter of looking carefully at how best such a program could be put in place and understood within in our particular school district. For example, I believe the school-to-school breakdowns in communication, when not all of a students’ data, particularly with regards to special education, is passed on to where it should go at the child’s next grade level, could be resolved, with protocols clearly defined, within an RTI Plan.”

“With regards to our Special Education Programs, we do want to reach out to parents and involve them with program development. If parents are interested in program-specific parent advisory committees, to advise us on continuous improvement of our programs and how they can best meet student needs, we would certainly support and facilitate that.” Mr. Dempsey noted.

Parents also wanted to discuss MCAS with regard to special education students, and were wondering , “Why is it required that we measure all kids the same with this test? Because ultimately, it results in the fact that a 10th grader who scores in the Needs Improvement category (there are four categories, scored 200-280, which are Warning, Needs Improvement, Proficient, and Advanced), will be required to take the MCAS again in 11th grade to try to achieve a Proficient score. Which can be really demoralizing to the student. He or she has passed the MCAS, they have achieved what they needed to to graduate, but it’s not over for them!”

According to Massachusetts law at present, passing the 10th grade MCAS with a score of 240 or higher in ELA and Mathematics is one requirement for earning a high school diploma. Alternatively, a student who scores a 220-238 (Needs Improvement) and who successfully completes an Educational Proficiency Plan (EPP’s) for ELA or Math, and then retakes the ELA or Math MACS in 11th grade also meets the requirement. Students must also earn a score of 220 or higher on a Science test to meet the graduation requirements; those who don’t need to complete the EPP and retake the Science test in 11th grade as well to graduate.

Mr. Dempsey responded, “The MCAS were first designed to identify poor performing schools to give them the resources to improve. Over time, the tests have evolved and become a tool to measure student performance as well. In a sense, for some students they do encourage using a bigger hammer to get a round peg into a square hole, which often results in damaging the peg. MCAS can become a negative pressure cooker, especially for special education students. It is fundamentally unfair to hold up uniform expectations for a diverse population of students. However, this is the system we have. I would, as a coach, tell a discouraged 10th grader that the benefit of trying again for a 240 is that they will be able to walk out of the process being proud of having worked to achieve their personal best level of performance, and they will gain valuable knowledge in the process that will serve them later on. Tell them that continuously striving for excellence is important, an essential life-skill. That this is what they need to do, but that the pressure is off. They will graduate. It is now about improving their knowledge base and growing as person, to keep on building their strengths.”

The Georgetown PAC plans to meet every first Tuesday evening of the month for the rest of the year. We welcome all parents, whether your child is in regular education, on a 504 or an IEP, and invite you to join us and learn more about how we work together to help our struggling students. All meetings run from 7-8:30pm in the Penn Brook Library, unless noted otherwise, and we aim to end by 8:30. An updated meeting schedule is as follows (topics may change if necessary, so stay tuned to our blog, the Georgetown Record, and school newsletters/emails & websites):

February 8: The Role of An Advocate, presented by Sue Terzakis, Special Education Advocate
March 8th: Basic Rights Parents Workshop
April 12th: An IEP for My Child, presented by the Federation for Children with Special Needs
May 10th: The Role of a School Psychologist, presented by Dr. Troy Carr
June 14th: Open Agenda, Special Education Personnel Appreciation

Parents, please come to our meeting next month on February 8th and see how much you can learn about advocate services and how to help your children thrive and succeed in our schools. More specific information about future events will be coming out, but you can always find it at

Respectfully submitted, Pam Lundquist, Georgetown SEPAC Chairperson 1/17/2010

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