District discusses big changes coming to special ed. dept.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood School District’s Department of Special Services held a community forum on Monday, July 30, at Columbia High School to address growing concerns about the new direction the department is taking.

In addition to a new interim director, Laura Morana, the leadership of the Special Services team will also include Karen Thomany and Renee Joyce as supervisors of special education, Bonita Patterson-Samuels as the principal of the Montrose Early Childhood Center, Karen Weiland as the non-Child Study Team social worker, Daniel Lemond and Elizabeth Kolidiy as clinicians, and Wyatt Durham as the Delta-T paraprofessional services manager.

Morana started in the SOMSD as a special education consultant in May before transitioning into her current position. She has previously served as a supervisor of special education, an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, and in education roles at both the county and state levels.

Thomany joined the school district in May and was previously a special education supervisor in both the Bloomfield and Jersey City public school districts, and prior to those roles worked as a school psychologist.

Joyce previously served as the principal of the Montrose Early Childhood Center. In her 15 years in the SOMSD, she has also served on the Child Study Team for preschool and elementary students.

Patterson-Samuels has worked in special education for 26 years, the last 17 in the SOMSD. Prior to taking the helm at Montrose, she was principal at Marshall Elementary School, before being suspended and then named as a principal on special assignment last school year. She was accused of having sent an insensitive message to a colleague regarding another co-worker.

Based on the numbers presented at the forum, the school district currently has 846 students in grades K-12 who are eligible for special education, with an additional 187 who are in out-of-district placement. However, the referral data for the 2017-2018 school year show that the overwhelming majority of students referred to the Child Study Team did not meet the criteria for special education.

On average, 84 percent of students in the school district who were referred for a CST evaluation last year did not meet the criteria to be classified for special education accommodations. Many of those referrals were made by parents. The significantly high numbers of students who were referred but did not meet criteria is an issue that Morana and her team plan to address in the upcoming school year.

“This is an opportunity for us to do some meaningful work. I see us being able to collaborate with everyone: general education teachers, content supervisors, building administrators and community members,” Morana said at the forum. “This is not about doing things differently or things away, but being more efficient in what we do. We have to define expectations for everyone. It isn’t about how Tuscan does it or how Jefferson does it, but what the special services department as a whole is doing.”

Strategies that the department will use to increase efficiency include: weekly meetings with individual child study teams, monthly meetings with teachers, the creation of support staff and lead nurse positions, and adopting standard operating procedures that will support a more data-driven system.

A major change to be implemented in September is the introduction of the Intervention and Referral Services Team, which will consist of approximately 25 to 30 teachers who have already met with Morana for more than 30 hours to discuss processes. This team will differ from the Child Study Team in that referrals will ideally come from teachers or other staff member who identify students who might benefit from extra support. Once the request for assistance is made, the team leader will review the information, the parent or guardian will be notified, and the team will collaborate on an action plan that will be monitored for six to eight weeks to determine its effectiveness.

“The Intervention and Referral Services Team does not take the place of the Child Study Team, nor should it be considered an additional obstacle to receiving a CST evaluation,” Morana said. “But when parents make CST referrals, it sometimes bypasses the steps of the process. The intervention team will allow for the student’s individual needs to be reviewed, and if it is determined that they are in fact eligible for special education, that can be addressed as well.”

Many audience members questioned what will happen to students who don’t meet the requirements for special education and how they are tracked.

“What about the students not eligible for a 504 plan, and how many were not eligible for a 504 plan or an IEP? I think we need to see where these students are and how they are doing,” one audience member said.

Additional goals of the Department of Special Services for the period of 2018 to 2020, are: collaborate with the Special Education Parent Advisory Council to promote programs and services; enroll 400 eligible preschool students by the end of 2022-2023; evaluate the services of the new paraprofessional vendor; and establish a transition program appropriate for students ages 14 to 21.

The department has also created a new email account, which parents can contact with concerns: Speciale@somsd.k12.nj.us.