Student Services: Special education focus is on inclusion in Cambridge
It’s been a busy first year for Dr. Victoria Greer, the new assistant superintendent of Student Services for Cambridge Public Schools.
Since she assumed office in July, she’s visited nearly every school within the district, met with parents and staff, held focus groups and office hours, and participated in classroom visits. She’s looked through past reports on the Department of Student Services, previously called the Office of Special Education, and culled through data to acquaint herself with her new school district.
“We took a step back to take a look forward,” Greer said. “This is the beginning of the work of us bringing all the pieces together, where there is student services and general education and curriculum all sitting with parents and teachers and school staff, and us trying to make the best decisions on how best to work with children.”
Greer’s leadership is a welcome change, parents said, from a department they described as sometimes uncommunicative, intimidating and confusing. It’s telling, they said, that in the past 10 years there have been six different heads of special education services.
At a January meeting of the Cambridge School Committee, Greer told the committee members one of the top four requests that she heard from parents was “Please stay, don’t leave.” Far from her home state, Tennessee, Greer says she’s not planning on going anytime soon.
A unique perspective
Cotton, corn and soybean fields dominate the landscape where Greer grew up in Covington, Tenn. She speaks with a Southern drawl that’s both calm and assertive at the same time. Raised in a family she said “was not educated,” Greer’s parents continually impressed upon her the importance of education in her own life.
A student with a disability in math herself, she said she understands what it’s like to navigate a school system that may or may not be tailored to students’ needs. In Tennessee, she worked both in special education and gifted and talented education, a classification recognized by Tennessee, but not Massachusetts, as an area for differentiated learning.
“I’ve seen both sides,” Greer said. “So, I see the plight of students who are gifted and high achieving. While academically, they may succeed, they often have some of the same challenges as children with disabilities.”
She worked in school districts that dwarfed the size of Cambridge with more than a 100 schools each and thousands of students. But, she said one of her most challenging tasks was to take a failing school and completely turn it around. Greer arrived at the school to find a giant hole in the library floor and more than $200,000 of books submerged under water.
“It was one of the poorest schools in the community, in one of the poorest counties. It was 99 percent African American. It was gang-infested. And, over the years, it just had poor leadership and not a lot of attention that was given to it,” Greer said.
Within three years, they had completely rebuilt not only the school’s physical infrastructure, but its social support infrastructure as well. Greer said she helped form a parent university and a resource center for parents so they could access a support system at the school, including help with jobs and employment. The strategy worked.
“Test scores went through the roof and we had more kids going to better high schools,” Greer said.
Although smaller and much-better resourced than the districts she’s overseen in the past, Greer said Cambridge presents its own set of unique challenges.
The city commissioned consulting firm, WestEd, to perform a comprehensive survey of Cambridge’s special education department, which was published in March of 2011. The report lays out a series of recommendations aimed at inclusion, or creating more opportunities for students with disabilities to remain in classes with their peers, building confidence in the department’s programming and staff, instituting cost containment measures that don’t compromise services, developing additional programs for students who receive services outside the district, and creating clearer definitions of educational terminology.
Superintendent Jeff Young said they kept the report in mind as they selected job candidates to fill Dr. Aida Ramos’s seat when she announced she was leaving the district. Perhaps the biggest change for parents is the level of communication they now experience, they said. Cambridge Public Schools parent Julie Messina has a son with Down’s syndrome.
Although she said she hasn’t seen much change at the school level, she’s noticed a big change in the district-wide approach to special education.
“There definitely seems to be a desire to be more responsive,” Messina said. “I understand (Dr. Greer) has taken a lot of this year to do internal housekeeping, but already we’re seeing the fruits of that labor, at least in terms of better communication to parents.”
Zina Gomez-Liss, a co-chair of the Cambridge Parent Advisory Council on Special Education (C-PAC), a state-mandated parent group, said from the moment Greer started working for the district, she included the C-PAC’s input.
“She treated us like major stakeholders in her entry plan,” Gomez-Liss said. “She treated us like we matter and we are important.”
Even seemingly little things, like the definitions of words related to education, are becoming clearer under Greer’s leadership, said C-PAC vice chair, Pia Marrella Cisternino.
“One way that the school district is starting to change is that things are becoming more transparent for families so they’re more on the same page,” Cisternino said. “So, when we say ‘mainstreaming,’ for example, we all know what we’re talking about.”
As the parent of two children with disabilities, Gomez-Liss said the individualized education program (IEP) process can be intimidating and confusing “even under the best of circumstances.” Although she hasn’t been on the C-PAC leadership for long, Gomez-Liss said she can already see a greater articulation of the department’s vision than she had in the past.
Greer said that was one of her top priorities when she started. Now, she said it’s a mantra she repeats daily: “To provide high quality services in the least restrictive environment with specialized support services for all kids.”
“It’s become almost symbolic for us as a commitment,” Greer said.
Inclusion is the name of the game
To Greer, inclusion is the name of the game. Although Cambridge has 70 percent of its special education students in “full inclusion” instruction, compared with 57 percent at the state level, it also has nearly double the state average of students who are in out of district placements, according to the WestEd report.
“This may suggest a lack of support for students whose needs require additional time outside of the regular classroom environment but for whom an out-of-district placement or substantially separate class placement may not be required,” the report reads.
Messina said that’s a message Greer seems to be taking to heart. Her son is in a general education classroom now, but he needs more support, she said. It’s a Catch-22, she said, because the more he’s pulled out of the classroom to get those extra services, the more he loses touch with his friends in class.
“That’s important for me because I can see my child pushing up against that constraint now,” Messina said. “I don’t want him being pulled out of class so much that he doesn’t have a homeroom anymore. …Because that’s what happens with most kids with disabilities – they get pulled out so much they don’t have a peer group.”
To that end, Greer said they will begin this summer with professional development instruction for teachers in general education classrooms on ways in which they can better support students with special needs.