Greenwich Schools Prepare to Chart a New Course for Special Education

It was a long time in the making but an independent consultant, Public Consulting Group, “PGC,” hired by Greenwich Schools presented the results of a special education review they conducted during the 20-21 school year, despite the pandemic.

The consultants conducted focus groups and classroom visits remotely. They reviewed multiple files. They conducted staff and parent surveys. In all, they met with over 300 parents.

The report was presented by the consultants Wednesday night in a special BOE meeting. The report had not reviewed by administration or the BOE before the presentation.

The 167 page report is posted on the district website:

The report noted that on July 1 an interim director of special education, Dr. Stacey Heilingenthaler, will take over from Mary Forde.

After 24 years, Ms Forde, whose title is “Chief Pupil Personnel Services Officer,” resigned and will depart the district on June 30, 2021. Dr. Heiligenthaler will start on July 1, 2021. She will play a key role in leading the action from the Special Education Review.

On Thursday morning BOE Chair Peter Bernstein did a debrief of the consultants’ report.

“On one hand, I’m not surprised by the findings. We need a wholesale cultural change,” he said on WGCH. “We asked them to look at our continuum of services, how we budget our funds, how our staffing model works.”

Bernstein noted the consultants offered 28 recommendations across multiple categories:

“Everything from the learning environment and services, to leadership, to expectations, to human capital and how we use our people, how we develop our people, to systems and structures. Our policies and procedures need reworking. And how we engage with family and community. There is a lot of work to do. If all 28 of these are priorities we’re going to have a hard time getting them done in quick order.”

“It’s going to take some time. It calls for a full scale reorganization,” he said. “But it’s necessary, and we’ve known it’s necessary for a while.”

Bernstein said that while previously reviews had been done, there had never been action.

“There’s a commitment from the Board. There’s a commitment from the Superintendent. There’s a commitment from the new interim director.”

Peter Bernstein, BOE chair

Bernstein said a meeting will be scheduled for parents to give public comments on the report, and that he hoped that parents would take the time to review it.

The BOE chair said even though there is a municipal election in November, the action plan would be made before that.

“This will happen. Change is going to come….I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been,” Bernstein said. “A lot of the recommendations don’t just affect the special education students. They affect all of our students.”

PGC’s report said parents had shared their hope that the report would be upfront and honest, even if the areas of improvement outweighed the strengths.

The consultants said there was a sense of cautious optimism among parents that the recommendations would be enacted “immediately and with fidelity,” though some remained conflicted about the district’s ability to change.

Per the consultant, Greenwich Schools student body is largely white (60.9%), with students primarily coming from economically advantaged backgrounds. The diversity in the community should not be overlooked, though. Hispanic/Latino students represent 22.3% of the student population, Asian students 8.7%, multiracial students 5.6%, and Black students 2.3%. Fourteen 14 English learners (EL) represent 4.0% of the student population, and 12.9% of students receive special education services.

PGC said that in Greenwich Schools, Hispanic students were four times more likely to be identified with an intellectual disability and two times more likely to be identified with a speech/language impairment.

Black or African-American students were twice as likely to be identified as having an emotional disability, other health impairment, or specific learning disability.

Of students with an IEP, 32.4% were economically disadvantaged compared to 19.0% of students without an IEP yet only 30.3% of children enrolled in early childhood were identified compared to the larger rate of 38.7% of unidentified children.

“The implications of this are significant and far-reaching – the department’s inertia to act with urgency on these matters has further seeded mistrust among parents and staff,” the consultants said in their report.

PCC summarized four shortcomings of Greenwich Schools special Education: The PPT process, communications and engagement, continuum of services, and professional development. They noted that all of these deficiencies had been identified in the prior 5 external special education reports spanning 24 years.

Specifically, they listed the district’s most pressing challenges:

• An IEP/PPT process that lacks consistency across the District because staff feel they receive conflicting messages from the PPS Office. In addition, the District has a standard operating procedures guide known as the Red Book that is not used consistently by staff.

• Parental frustrations and overwhelming distrust regarding the PPT process.

• Inconsistent use of Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) to assist struggling learners or inform the special education referral process. Conflicting and sometimes misconstrued beliefs on how MTSS can potentially support the needs of students who may be identified in the future as students with disabilities.

• Lingering achievement gaps that have plateaued between GPS students with disabilities and nondisabled peers.

• Use of “collaborative classroom” or “resource” special education that are not organized to meet all needs of students with IEPs, and inconsistent specialized supports for students with low incidence disabilities with unique learning needs (e.g., autism).

• By engaging in an unofficial policy of not “labeling” through programming, students with unique learning needs may not be getting access to learning supports and strategies specific to their disability.

• Classes that are inclusionary in name only. Classes in the middle schools and high school where the majority of students have IEPs and 504 plans yet they are taught by general education teachers with limited special education supports.

• Limited co-teaching that occurs at the middle school level only in select classes. It does not exist for elementary schools and high school.

• A collaborative teaching model that is not supported by research in the middle schools and high school known as Academic Lab, where partnerships between general education and special education teachers are not specific to the instruction taking place in the moment and are reactionary in supporting students after academic difficulties have already occurred.

• A belief by some building administrators that the present structure should not change. A fixed mindset is fostered by instruction that is inclusive in name only, where building administrators are not supportive of co-teaching, and a belief by some building administrators that the present structure should not change.

The consultants said the PPS office’s organizational structure appeared to be primarily supporting processes, procedures, and compliance district-wide, with programmatic initiatives and instructional support for differentiated instruction being initiated and implemented at the school level.

Given this model, the PPS Office is not currently structured to provide instructional support or best practices to schools.

Further, they said the culture of the department also needed revamping.

They suggested changing the office name from Pupil Personnel Services, “PPS,” to Specialized Instruction and Services, which could help rebrand and set a new course.

Also, the consultant said that while other school districts have struggled with decreasing budgets over the years, Greenwich Schools had benefited from relatively consistent funding from the town and low staffing ratios – compared to other districts nationally based on available data – for special education teachers, instructional assistants, nurses, speech therapists, and psychologists.

However, they said the per student dollar amount for students with disabilities has decreased over the past several years, and the commitment of funds to out-of-district placements has continued to escalate.

See also:

NMS to Relocate Grades 3-5 to Former Trinity Catholic School Campus in Stamford