By LINDSAY CAREY
Southington Public Schools was represented by two school officials and local politicians at the Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies Commission’s Special Education Select Working Group meeting held at the Southington Municipal Center on Dec. 18.
The meeting was one of a series, which Special Education Select Working Group is holding throughout the state this winter to hear the testimonies of special education parents and educators.
Special education educators, school administrators, politicians and parents of special needs children gathered to try to answer two important questions. The first was, “What are the systematic challenges to special education?” and secondly, “What are some possible solutions?”
Southington was well-represented with Director of Pupil Services Margaret Walsh beginning the discussion. Walsh shared a laundry list of issues within the current educational system that cause difficulty for special education students and their parents.
One of the challenges she discussed is the increase in the number of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, who require specific methodologies and interventions to meet their needs such as Applied Behavior Analysis and Discreet Training Interventions.
“That requires a one to one ratio of adults to students and that is the best standard to often time help these students to be successful,” said Walsh.
Walsh said 9.6 percent of special education students in Southington have been identified with ASD. This is about 81 students out of 840 special education students, who benefit best from one on one instruction.
Walsh, who started at Southington Public Schools in the fall, has an extensive 30 year background in multiple school systems in Connecticut. Walsh came to Southington from New Britain, where she worked as the district coordinator of Special Education and Pupil Services.
Another one of the systematic challenges, Walsh discussed the increase in the number of students, primarily at the secondary level, who are demonstrating anxiety and school avoidance behaviors.
“We can’t even get them into school,” said Walsh. “It’s actually a national phenomenon.”
The Special Education Select Working Group discussed this issue in depth, identifying it as a growing issue in the school system that needs to be addressed. A few members of the group noted that this trend may be due to learning disabilities and mental illnesses like depression.
Walsh also advocated for transitional programming and support for special education students as they grow out of the school system.
“We support also for our students ages 18 to 21 as they age out and enter the world of work or post-secondary training,” said Walsh. “There are more and more children and families who are looking to the district to support these children.”
Chairman of the Special Education Select Working Group Brian Becker noted there is hardly any follow up done after special education students leave the school system, which makes it hard to gauge whether the educational system has prepared them well.
One of the solutions Walsh suggested to combat the current issues in special education was considered innovated and unique by the group. Walsh suggested shared responsibilities between Local Educational Agencies to create regional programs for students in special education. The regional programs would be taught by skilled professionals from multiple districts with the public school system.
In order to entice communities to participate, Walsh suggested a fiscal incentive come from the state.
Another solution Walsh suggested to the Special Education Select Working Group was to increase mental health services for children by collaborating with community based programs and agencies. Essentially, the more support and resources available to the family the better they will do in school.
Walsh also strongly recommended that a dual certification in special education and regular education be required for teachers at the elementary school level.
Southington also was represented by Board of Education Chairman Brian Goralski, who also spoke about some of the systematic challenges with special education.
From an administrative standpoint, Goralski noted the high costs of providing special education services, the shortage of qualified candidates certified in special education to meet the needs of student population, out-of-district program placement costs and a lack of support from the state Department of Education as some of the major systematic challenges to special education.
“The cost of special education is growing so rapidly that it is undermining the ability of local communities to be truly proactive with educational services and forcing a reactive approach,” said Goralski.
The chairman offered some ground-breaking solutions to these problems. One of his suggestions was to have the special education services reimbursed separately to improve planning during the budget process.
Goralski also suggested the state sponsor incentives to attract qualified educators and future educators to the field of special education.
“These incentives should be provided at all qualified institutions of higher education and at the employment level,” said Goralski. “They could range from student loan forgiveness to additional stipends for shortage area positions.”
Goralski also suggested the state Excess Cost Reimbursement Grant must be fully funded and that the cost of students placed by a state agency be fully covered by the state Department of Education.
“Sadly, we know all students don’t have that family support that’s strongly needed for success in everything, so with the state agency placed or a no-nexus (no tax income received for) students, the state should assume that burden,” said Goralski.
Overall, Goralski’s suggestions sought to hold the state more responsible for providing support and development to all students. He even called out the State for the lack of the leadership within the Bureau of Special Education.
Southington also was represented by Superintendent of Schools Timothy Connellan, who is a member of the Special Education Select Working Group.
In addition, State Rep. Joe Arresimowicz, State Rep. Dave Zoni, and Southington Board of Education member Jill Notar-Francesco also attended the meeting.