State reports big progress in Andover special education

ANDOVER — Special education programs in Andover’s public schools have shown significant improvement over the last three years, according to a recent report by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

When these programs were last reviewed in 2014, Andover was non-compliant in 24 of 59 areas regulated by the state, but that number has shrunk to three.

“This was a priority, this was something we absolutely needed to address, and there were concerns of parents,” said Sheldon Berman, superintendent of schools. “It’s hard to develop confidence in a program if the state says you don’t have compliance.”

The state’s evaluation was conducted over two days in April. It involved classroom visits along with teacher interviews and extensive reviews of documents, said Student Services Director Sara Stetson, who oversees special education programs in Andover.

The three areas needing work were classified as being partially, or inconsistently implemented. Stetson listed these as “facilities for speech-language therapy at West Elementary School, more detailed tracking of student participation in IEP (Individualized Education Programs) meetings, and more detailed descriptions of why some students require individualized pull-out services.”

The latter refers to statements that teachers must write, evaluating the impact on students of removing them from a regular classroom, so they can be placed in a setting devoted to special education.

“They’re not saying we’re not doing that — that we’re not putting those justifications in the IEP,” Stetson said. “They’re saying the justifications we’re using are lacking detail — better discussion of the disability, and why they need that pull-out support.”

The second concern in the evaluation was that teachers haven’t been consistent in encouraging students 14 and older to participate in meetings about their IEPs, or following up when students weren’t present to voice their preferences. The West Elementary School came under scrutiny for not offering enough privacy in the rooms where they work with special education students.

“We either have to restructure the space so it’s more closed in, or move it into another space,” Berman said.

One of 32 areas of improvement has been in the collaboration between regular teachers and special educators in meeting the needs of students with educational disabilities. Another is in achieving consistency in evaluating all areas of suspected disabilities.

“There may have been some inconsistencies because there are many things that we evaluate for,” Stetson said. “New Hampshire has 13 categories and Massachusetts has 12, and each one of those disability categories has variations in terms of how it expresses itself.”

The evaluation also reported that Andover schools had reached full compliance in meeting timelines, as well as in applying special standards for students with autism, Berman said. He described special education as the most highly regulated part of their job, and said the progress reflected in this report was achieved mostly by thorough adherence to procedures.

“It’s important that we’re public and transparent about it,” Berman said. “My goal is over time to build confidence in our work. I have tremendous confidence in our people — I think they have the best interests of the kids at heart.”


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