Island SPED programs get good grades

High school addresses absences, and good news from student initiatives.


Special education programs on the Island are robust and evolving, an independent evaluator of the the special ed programs reported to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School

School (MVRHS) committee Monday.

The special ed presentation and response from community members, which included comments and concerns from the Island Parents Advisory Council (IPAC) on special education, were part of a full agenda. School officials also reviewed a draft of a school improvement plan, and a draft of a new policy to combat absenteeism rates, which principal Sara Dingledy described as too high and “something we need to get a handle on.”

“This is probably the most encompassing [special education] program I’ve seen in the 70 or so evaluations I’ve done in the past 11 years, and your proactive planning is the best I’ve ever seen,“ evaluator James A. Shillinglaw told a packed meeting room.

“It used to be that if kids passed the MCAS [state-required testing], we felt we had done our job. Now schools are realizing that more support is needed to transition to post-secondary life,” Shillinglaw said.

Over the past four years, the high school introduced two new special ed programs, Navigator and Compass, that are designed to aid in transition to the high school from middle school for students (Navigator) and to provide guidance and support for high school students to move into the general education population and career planning after high school (Compass). The school district has had a Bridge program for transitioning middle schoolers to high school in place for several years, and is proposing a Voyager program for 18- to 22-year-old graduates to use to develop career and life skills.

Special education specialists work in tandem with other teachers to craft individualized learning plans for students with a spectrum of challenges to learning. Nine of the 10 Compass students are now learning in the general education population, Shillinglaw noted.

After three dozen interviews with administrators, teachers, students, and parents, Shillinglaw offered 10 suggestions for the programs, including ongoing professional development for the co-teaching model in place, and reorganizing academic support after freshman year. He proposed several ideas for monitoring and strengthening reading skills, and suggested ongoing efforts to to increase overall staff awareness of special education terms, practices, and policies, as well as ongoing efforts to establish consistent approaches to school discipline.

IPAC chairman Laura Silber brought a list of parent comments and concerns that included whether special education staffing levels should be increased, concerns about continuity for students moving from Bridge to Navigator, and use of community service as a replacement for suspension for disciplinary issues. IPAC also recommended an action group be formed for identifying and dealing with a range of reading issues that differ across the special ed population. Silber said the district’s special education budget is below state average, though program director Hope McLeod noted that cross-training of teachers and guidance counselors provides more assets than are apparent.

Absences targeted

In offering proposed new policies and penalties for a significant number of unexcused absences, Dingledy said the MVRHS absenteeism rate is about 18 percent, a rate the school wants to lower.

The four-page document addressing absence provides that students who exceed five to 10 absences in a semester, based on coursework, face reduction in credits awarded for affected courses. The proposed plan allows students to re-enroll or earn back the credits in summer school. In the case where students have five excused absences in a course during a semester, MVRHS may award full credit if the student has worked with guidance or administration to make a plan to catch up on missed classwork and has not accumulated unexcused absences/tardies/dismissals or cuts in the course.

In other business, junior Owen Engler reported that a safe ride he and his classmates provided on prom night had been a success, and that a GoFundMe page that Engler recently established had raised $1,000 that will be available to continue the program next year.

“The prom had record participation, and the ride program was well-received by the students. Remember that 18-year-olds can’t drive after midnight,” he said of the program, which cost $1,200 in its initial year.

Nate Packer, junior captain of the boys track team, had the feel-good story of the night, telling the committee that the boys track team had just received the annual Citizenship Award presented by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), the state’s high school athletic governing body.

Turns out two members of the MVRHS track squad went out of their way at a track meet in Middleboro earlier this season to congratulate a rival runner with autism spectrum disorder who had just completed his first track meet.

The runner’s mother, touched by their actions, wrote to the MIAA seeking recognition for them. ”We were totally surprised. We had no idea we had won the award,” Packer told the crowd to applause.

In addition to a second reading of the school’s updated discrimination and anti-bias policy, the committee got a draft of revised Automated External Defibrillators (AED) policy language, reinforcing that a defibrillator and a trained operator be in place at every school in the district.

Additionally, the committee learned that Assistant Principal Elliott Bennett is retiring after 18 years at MVRHS. In her her letter of retirement, effective Nov. 1, 2018, Bennett said her personal goal has been to help unify “the administration and teachers through a period of transition,” adding that “at this point I feel that the school is on a positive trajectory and is in a place that I feel comfortable ending my tenure at MVRHS.”