School board weighs more special education aid at Staples

Photo of Justin Papp

WESTPORT — Though Westport Schools’ special education administrative structure is strong, a consultant said more support is needed to handle the course load at Staples High School.

The recommendation came along with several others presented by Michael Regan, director of special education at Trumbull-based consultant Cooperative Educational Services, at the Monday meeting of the Board of Education.

It was a mostly laudatory report delivered by Regan on Westport’s special education services, with Regan calling Westport’s system the “best” he’s seen. Still, in addition to his suggestion more special education resources be shifted to the high school, his report came with eight other recommendations.

Regan suggested the district, among other things, discontinue a system of academic tracking beginning in elementary and middle school that ultimately lands students in leveled courses at Staples High School, potentially limiting the academic opportunities of special education students that tend to track toward lower placements.

“If there’s a continuation of that tracking toward lower levels, then your kids with disabilities may not have the full advantage that the other students have,” Regan said. He said statistics show improvements for special education and regular education students with increased integration.

“Kids learn acceptance,” he said. “Those are kids in the community. They’re part of the fabric of Westport, and they really need to be included not just in the classroom, but socially, they learn an awful lot, and the other kids learn an awful lot from them.”

Regan said it’s important to maintain Advanced Placement and honors classes, but suggested the elimination of lower-level courses, especially in math, where Westport special education students are performing lower than other similar districts, like Darien, Redding and New Canaan.

Some parents expressed concern at the elimination of lower-level classes.

“That was the only recommendation that kind of did not sit well with me,” Saruna Mahesh said during the public comments section. Mahesh noted special education was a spectrum and certain students may find it easier to access material in existing, lower-level classes.

Others disagreed.

“I want to commend the district for thinking about the tracking process that is used in the district because it is in all research, it’s completely clear that it is actually one of the progressive things you can do for all kids,” said Fairfield resident Rana. “It helps all students do better.”

Superintendent Colleen Palmer had already addressed a need at Staples High School for more special education administrators.

In December, Palmer announced plans to alter the district’s administrative structure to add more support to the high school. With Palmer’s plan, one of two assistant principals at Coleytown Elementary School — which has the lowest enrollment of any Westport elementary school — would be eliminated, as would the directors of elementary education and of secondary education. An assistant superintendent of schools, a district-wide director of academic programs and services and a pre-K through fifth-grade district math coordinator, would be added.

On Monday, Regan suggested the role of the existing director of pupil services be expanded and moved from the high school to the central office and the psychological services coordinator share responsibilities at Staples with the special education coordinator, among other small changes to the district’s special education program.

Palmer voiced her support for the suggestions, including rethinking the way students are tracked and placed in high school classes.

By eliminating tracking and certain leveled classes, the superintendent said, “we build in the opportunity for students to rise to the highest level that they can achieve, and we don’t prescribe for them that they’re at a set level.”; @justinjpapp1