Orange schools’ special ed. strives for inclusion

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Recorder Staff

ORANGE — Currently, students with an identified need for special education are taught separately from their peers in the Orange schools. That would change next year as the district moves to restructure special education in both elementary schools.

The Orange Elementary School district is the recipient of a $67,637 state grant to plan the under-performing Dexter Park School’s transformation into an “innovation school,” an education department category allowing increased flexibility in a number of areas.

The district has two elementary schools and on Monday, Superintendent Tari Thomas said the plan is to mirror Dexter Park’s restructuring at the Fisher Hill School.

District Curriculum Director Roxanne Dorrie said the special education program now primarily sees students pulled from the classroom during the day for extra help, with some students taught in separate classrooms.

The new model would include all students in the general education classrooms, with a student support center where students who need it can work one-on-one or two-on-one with certified special education teachers. The aim is to close the achievement gap between students with special education needs and their peers.

Some might need life skills or social skills education or intensive reading help that can’t happen in the classroom, Dorrie said. “So they would get to go to the student support center, but they’re not going to live there. The difference is they’re not living there, everyone’s going to be part of a regular ed community.”

The grant program under which the school is to receive $67,637 specifically targets schools transitioning into innovation schools.

“You don’t have to be an innovation school to do this, lots of schools are doing this,” Dorrie said of the special ed inclusion model. “We’re just getting money to do this in a really thorough, thought-out way with a lot of professional development.”

Dorrie said some schools have opted for the model without any training for teachers now expected to co-teach regular and special education classes, with poor results.

“Teachers who are going to be co-teachers are going to get a three-credit graduate course taught by professors on-site, paid for. We’re just getting the benefit of the money,” Dorrie said.

Thomas said the schools are expected to move toward some model of inclusion regardless, under a network of federal and state standards, and the coming votes — by and advisory committee and staff in May and the School Committee in June will decide whether to spend the grant.

“What that timeline would really be doing is following through and accepting the money to make the turnaround work,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the district’s students with disabilities — 24 percent, compared to the 17 percent state average — will benefit from inclusion through exposure to other students and heightened expectations. “If you’re a student with a disability and you’re put in a classroom with students who are all struggling, you’re not being exposed to the level of expectation for your grade level,” Thomas said.

Analysis of the district’s test scores — which must improve if the district is to leave Level 3 in the state’s 1-5 accountability system and avoid a slide to Level 4 — have found that special education services need to change, she said, with performance not even flat-lining but declining.

Thomas said planning is underway, and being met with enthusiasm and some apprehension. At this time, the restructuring should not involve any reduction in teaching staff, Thomas said.

“The expectation is we’re going to create something that’s fantastic,” Thomas said.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com