Last July, Montclair school district officials said they would be 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.

On Aug. 8, members of the special services office and schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds reported to the Montclair Board of Education and the community on their work during the 2021-22 school year and plans for the fall.

The third-party audit, by GoTeach Consultants, was first presented by company founder Christopher Tienken to the Montclair school board in May 2021 and included an example of a three-year plan for “continuous improvement” for the district. The audit’s 35 pages of findings are available on the school district’s site.

Over the past year, district and school administrators have used the audit’s findings and plan to set goals and map out the future of the special education program

The audit authors gave 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,” Ponds said when the audit was presented.

During the Aug. 8 presentation, David Goldblatt, interim director of pupil services, and Carla Perez, supervisor of special education, presented the department’s five main goals: establishing consistent processes and oversight throughout the district, establishing continuity of identification, interventions and literacy programs to address dyslexia and other learning disabilities, developing a process for efficient scheduling of special education staff, providing clear and ongoing methods of communication with parents and staff, and developing and providing targeted training for staff. 

In its effort to increase consistency across the district, the pupil services office has restructured its department to ensure building level involvement, including bi-weekly meetings with administrators. The department is also planning to launch processes next month that will standardize paperwork and procedures in an effort to create a more formalized system, Perez said at the meeting. 

In its work to address dyslexia, the district will continue Orton-Gillingham training for staff members. Orton-Gillingham is a multisensory approach to reading and spelling, recognized as the most effective model to teach children to read, Goldblatt said at the meeting. 

Two cohorts of staff members have already moved through the training program and an additional cohort will begin training this fall, Goldblatt said. The previous cohorts have focused on a one-to-one approach, but training will be expanded to a small group model to meet the needs of the district, he said. 

There will be two to three certified staff members in each elementary school and fewer at the middle schools, but the district is looking to build that up, Perez said. 

“What Montclair is doing, is really trying to embed into the teaching and learning culture the most effective interventions and programs and processes that we can possibly do,” Goldblatt said. “I hope that everyone will come to think of this not as something special, but as something normal.”

Optional Orton-Gillingham training will also be available after school for special education teachers and staff, Goldblatt said. 

The third goal, efficient scheduling of special education teachers, child study team and resource support program staff, is an ongoing process, Perez said. 

In May, district and school-level administrators reassigned child study team and resource support program staff to “ensure more equitable caseloads and to meet building level needs,” according to the presentation. The district examined staffing needs based on Individualized Education Plans, class size requirements and student needs, the presentation said. 

The administrators are now reviewing the needs of incoming students and how to ensure resources are best used, according to the presentation.

The district will continue to publish its quarterly newsletter, started in winter 2022, highlighting classroom instruction, department goals and department information. The pupil services department is also working to establish a schedule for monthly meetings with child study teams and additional targeted meetings to address professional development needs, according to the presentation. 

Leaders of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council have not yet responded to an email sent Friday asking for comments on the presentation.

The final goal also focuses on the need for targeted professional development for staff that work with the special education population. In the spring, the department asked staff members what areas they needed more training in — lessons on co-teaching models, accommodations and modification, how to interpret data and more were requested, Perez said. 

In addition to the five main goals, the department continues work in other areas: creating a parent handbook and a handbook for paraprofessionals, planning for a special education academy for parents and lining up staff training for next summer. 

Board member Melanie Deysher applauded the work of the department and district staff, but asked that training for staff include work on individualized goal creation for students.

“From sitting on the other side as a parent of a kid with special needs, writing individualized goals for kids that are meaningful has been a consistent problem,” Deysher said. 

Data collection is also essential to helping students succeed and it’s directly linked to one of the audit’s goals, Deysher said — addressing overuse of paraprofessionals. By not monitoring a student’s progress and adjusting goals accordingly, “an inadvertent, accidental thing” can happen where students are “more dependent than they need to be,” she said.

During the meeting, Goldblatt pointed to state aid as a marker of the hard work of the pupil services department. 

Each year, the district applies for reimbursement from the state Department of Education for money spent on its special education program, he said. To do so, staff must look through and document costs for each student, including the programs and other resources provided by the district that the student takes advantage of. 

This year, the percentage of state reimbursement decreased by 7%, but the district was awarded $1.8 million dollars more than the previous year, Goldblatt said. This is a result of the hard work of the department, he said. 

The department’s work to apply for reimbursement is “wonderful,” Ponds said. The reimbursement was not accounted for in the budget since the amount differs each year.

“Having a full and stable team actually helps us as a district because we can actually get what we deserve,” Ponds said.