By TALIA WIENER
Montclair schools say they’re undertaking major, systemic changes to special education after an audit found racial disparities in how often children are classified as needing services, problems with communication and uneven experiences across the district’s schools.
That third-party audit, by GoTeach Consultants, was first presented by company founder Christopher Tienken to the Montclair school board in May. Its 35 pages of findings were posted to the school district’s site Monday.
In a letter sent Friday to families of special education students and students with 504 plans (which provide accommodations to children with disabilities), schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said the district would be “mindful of our magnet system and the varied programs in special education across all schools” as it takes steps in response.
But Ponds also said the authors had given Montclair schools the tools “to implement a uniform system of service with equity and quality for our protocols, processes, practices and oversight across all programs and schools.”
Members of the district’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council will join the district’s newly formed Build Back Better committee. Ponds also promised more immediate steps that include hiring new administrative leadership in the school system’s pupil services office, hiring staff to fulfill individualized education plans and standardizing processes like the district’s “response to intervention” process for students.
“We saw a need for an audit, and I immediately made this a top priority and recommended a consultant to provide the district with an audit of special education services,” Ponds told Montclair Local. The district hadn’t ever done such an audit before, he said.
Kathy Maloy, a member of the leadership committee for Montclair’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said the district has seen problems with racial disparities in special education classifications “for a long time.”
She described having the audit’s specific, actionable findings “exciting.”
“What that leads to, of course, is going to be the biggest thing to watch for,” she said.
She said the advisory council recently met with school officials — Ponds, assistant superintendent for equity, curriculum and instruction Kalisha Morgan and school board Vice President and special education liaison Priscilla Church. In the three years that Maloy has been part of the advisory council’s leadership, she said, the group hadn’t ever met with a superintendent. Ponds joined the district in the summer of 2020.
The audit found 19% of Black students and 18.1% of Asian students were classified for special education and served under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but only 15% of white students were classified. It found slightly fewer — 14.2% — Hispanic students were classified.
Among students in special education, Black students were 1.6 times as likely to be placed in self-contained or out-of-district special education as all other races combined. Asian students were 1.23 times as likely, Hispanic students were 1.07 times as likely and white students were 0.65 times as likely.
Tienken cautioned that those are only approximations, and data errors are possible.
Rutgers education professor Wanda J. Blanchett, whose research focuses on issues of educational inequity, said Montclair isn’t alone in seeing racial disparities in special education placement.
For instance, the U.S. Department of Education’s 2020 report to Congress, in a tally of students ages 6 through 21, found that in New Jersey in the fall of 2018, 15.6% of Black or African American students and 13.4% of Hispanic students were served under IDEA. Only 12.8% of white students and just 5.8% of Asian students were served under IDEA.
A majority of referrals for special education are made by classroom teachers, Blanchett said.
“If you’ve consecutively throughout your educational career not had a fully credentialed teacher, a teacher who knew how to teach you to read, then that’s not a reading disability, that’s an access problem,” Blanchett said. “We’re talking about children who don’t have access to good quality education, and are referred to special education because they’ve not had adequate and ample opportunities to be taught well.”
Blanchett was speaking broadly, but not specifically about findings in Montclair schools.
But she said there’s been progress preparing teachers to help all students — “because we’re actually no longer disputing whether or not we have a disproportionality problem.”
Tienken recommended that the district investigate the factors at play, including the family backgrounds and histories of students in the special education programs, and processes that might be leading to disproportionate classifications.
Tienken said the “idea of inconsistency across the district” was expressed often by families during the audit process.
“It’s not good enough that a student may have had an outstanding experience in Pre-K through [grade] two in one school, but Pre-K through [grade] two students with disabilities in another school might not have gotten that same level of quality and positive experience,” he said.
One way to do this is to ensure when students with disabilities are in general education settings, teachers have the resources to serve them, Tienken said.
Parents of special education students who spoke to Montclair Local described disparate experiences with getting help for their children in the pandemic.
When parent Michele Silver’s daughter began to struggle in elementary school, Silver said, she didn’t want to be overbearing. Assuming the district was overwhelmed, she decided to give officials some time to reach out.
But it wasn’t until her daughter was failing three classes that Silver was contacted by the school and began the process of getting accommodations for her daughter, she said. Silver declined to say which school her daughter attended.
“It’s almost like she had to hit rock bottom before they took action,” she said. “The process itself has to be just the most frustrating, aggravating, slow-moving process.”
Parent Emily Goldberg told Montclair Local she’d been voicing concerns about her son’s struggle with remote learning all year, but felt she wasn’t heard by her son’s school until his teacher chimed in; she also declined to say which school her son attended. Having a teacher on her side “felt like the keys to the system,” Goldberg said.
“I know a lot of parents who are not getting any responsiveness because maybe their teacher isn’t willing to do that,” she said. “I felt very lucky.”
Parent and advisory council leadership team member Alexis Dudley said she began to voice concerns about her son Max’s experience with remote learning at Northeast School — that his academic and social emotional levels were suffering significantly — but either did not hear back from his teacher or received no follow-up after an initial response. Dudley said she was told there was data showing Max was doing well academically, but no such data was shared with her.
“Every behavior that we had dealt with and unlearned over the years, were brought back,” she said. “Being put on a screen, it was a really bad format for him. If I didn’t sit at the end of the desk and not let him walk away, he wouldn’t have gone to class.”
The audit also recommended rebuilding the district culture for equity — to ensure that parents, guardians or caregivers who enter the district with few resources (such as for advocates, attorneys or private evaluations) receive the same assistance offered to families who have more.
“In many cases parents, guardians and caregivers feel as if they’re being made to figure things out as they move through the process,” Tienken said during the presentation.
Maloy told Montclair Local parents who are unable to spend much time and energy advocating for their children are “left out in the dust.”
The audit recommended the district create a directory of services and develop a clear chain of command so parents, guardians and caregivers know whom to call with questions or concerns.
Goldberg said the district often communicated by sending parents notices on Friday evenings, with information or updates that would affect families as soon as the following Monday.
“For people that have jobs, that have all sorts of child-care challenges, for single parents like me, it was just impossible to manage,” she said. “Our children were in massive crisis, our families were in massive crisis. No one was there to hear about it or to care.”
‘Our highest priorities’
The audit also made several other recommendations. It said Montclair should have a systemic, districtwide approach to developing and monitoring individualized education plans. It said there should also be a systemic approach to dyslexia screening, with consistent resources throughout the district.
The audit said general education teachers should share in the responsibility for special education students’ academics and behaviors. It said there should be clearer guidelines for paraprofessional support.
And it said the district should collaborate with the advisory council to create a “Special Education Academy” to help spread information and “demystify” processes and procedures.
Joahne Carter, who’d been in one of the audit’s focus groups along with other parents with children in the district’s special education program, and Goldberg both said they are worried about the district’s ability to respond to the audit, saying they felt failed by inattention during the pandemic.
Ponds, in his message to families Friday, said change can be a “huge undertaking” but “we are determined to stand by our commitment of providing a high-quality, equitable education for all.”
“These efforts are among our highest priorities,” he wrote. “Our commitment to ‘All kids can learn, and all kids are special’ will fuel our efforts to do what needs to be done on their behalf.”