WEST ORANGE, NJ — Kristin Gogerty, the West Orange School District’s Director of Special Services, detailed updates to the district’s special services department at the West Orange Board of Education meeting on Dec. 11. The changes stem from the results of a special education audit presented in January; Gogerty and staff in the department have created an action plan to improve the learning experience for special education students in West Orange.
According to Gogerty, teachers in the special services department visited other school districts — specifically the Bernards and Summit districts and the Developmental Learning Center in Union — to evaluate them and gather information to better West Orange schools.
“We have had the self-contained teachers of students with autism conduct outside visits to other districts,” Gogerty said at the meeting. “We developed an evaluation instrument so when teachers went on the visits they could collect information that’s specific to the areas we want to look at. We’re planning to schedule meetings with the teachers in January to compile the information in order to move forward.”
A goal of the special services department is to develop a program philosophy for the self-contained autism program, Gogerty said. That will begin next year.
“Right now we’re looking to begin this goal in year three,” she said. “We’re going to use the remainder of this year to compile the information from the school visits and then start the initial stages of the curriculum writing next year.”
Curriculum is also being developed for the students in the intellectual disabilities program, which has already begun. Gogerty said that teachers also used information from the school visits for this.
“We’ve identified two teachers at the elementary level and two teachers at the secondary level and they have started to develop the curriculum specific to English language arts,” she said. “We’re working on K to two, and six to eight, and looking at differentiating the performance based assessments as well as intellectual disabilities supplemental materials that would be appropriate for the students as well.”
A framework for reading instruction for special education students has also begun to be written this year. Gogerty said the teachers implementing the new curriculum are continuing to track students’ progress.
“We have started the initial implementation and the teachers providing the instruction are continuing to look at the criteria for identifying students and the framework for the delivery of very targeted instruction,” she said.
In addition, world language classes for special education students are being reconsidered. Gogerty said other districts often have special education students take a culture class instead of Spanish or French. They would still have exposure to the language classes, but would have extra time in other subjects.
“We’ve had consultations between the special services and world languages departments to consider support options in world language classes,” Gogerty said. “That support doesn’t always have to be a person, but looking at a strategy and other modifications that could be given within the classroom.”
The departments have considered making Spanish classes smaller at West Orange High School and an introductory Spanish curriculum is being developed.
“This will really primarily be for our students with autism and intellectual disabilities,” Gogerty said. “That will fulfill the graduation requirements for the students.”
Gogerty also addressed the curriculum being developed for special education students who struggle with reading, and tying this in with world language. That same curriculum will be able to be used for general education as well.
“I know from my own personal experience that when a special education student is struggling with reading, sometimes instead of having the student take Spanish or French or another world language, you’d give them extra reading,” BOE member Sandra Mordecai said at the meeting. “Is that the direction you’re going in?”
Gogerty said no formal decision has been made, but acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez said the administration has spoken to the New Jersey Department of Education and learned that the world language requirement can no longer be waived.
“We can look at modifying the courses but we cannot replace it with reading,” she said at the meeting. “We’ve been instructed ‘no.’ But we can look at different options for modification and a world cultures course.”
The audit also identified that the district needs to better ensure compliance and improve the quality of communication between administrators, teachers and parents. Gogerty said that progress reports have been implemented and will continue moving forward.
“They’re done in November, April and June, and we’re continuing to implement the assessments from K to five, and six to 12,” she said. “Within the preschool program, they do planning that allows us to monitor student growth on a daily basis throughout the year.”
Additional professional development has been provided and will continue to be provided to teachers and administrators, and Gogerty said that parents in the West Orange Special Education Parent Advisory Council will also receive professional development at their February meeting.
BOE members said they are pleased with the progress that the special services department has made since May when the last update was provided.
“I think you hit a lot of the key points, which is to continue to monitor and program and improve it,” BOE member Irv Schwarzbaum said at the meeting. “Compliance, as we know from the audit, is a major area from a legal perspective and I think it’s important that you’re working on the communication and the professional development. I think it’s very comprehensive.”