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Community members raise concerns over MAUSD’s student support system 

BRISTOL — Parents and community members within the Mount Abraham Unified School District have in recent weeks taken to school board meetings to voice concerns and questions to district officials. 

Many of the remarks shared, whether related to spending decisions or “clear the classroom” events in local schools, have been rooted in a shared belief that students throughout the district are not getting the support they need. 

Some feel these concerns have tipped the balance that resulted in the defeat of two school budget votes.

MAUSD parents and teachers have told the school board of students not being provided the special education services they’re entitled to, of limited resources available for students in need of extra support, and of educators needing more help addressing students’ needs. 

“Kids that have disabilities are not all receiving services that they’re supposed to, or kids that are not getting services yet that are eligible for services are being told ‘we need more information, we need more data,’ or ‘No, you’re not eligible,’” Bristol parent Shawna Gabbeitt told the Independent. “Then kids that don’t need services that are not on an (Individualized Education Program) or have no disability, are being put in positions that are causing them to start having trauma because they’re seeing such emotional dysregulation constantly, where they’re scared to go to school.” 

Gabbeitt is among the community members who’ve expressed concern about a lack of needed support for students and teachers. It’s unclear exactly how many parents and teachers are included in this group, but several community members have voiced student support-related concerns at recent school board meetings, including parents in Bristol and New Haven. 

Such concerns have also been closely tied to ongoing budget conversations within the MAUSD. District voters on Tuesday will weigh in on a third budget proposal for fiscal year 2025 (see story). The $35.4 million spending plan retains a handful of vacant student support and student-facing positions that were originally eyed as potential reductions, including two special educator jobs and a Social and Emotional Learning intensive coach position. 

Residents and multiple MAUSD board members had strongly advocated that the district preserve such positions in any spending proposal put before voters, stating MAUSD schools need more social emotional support and student-facing positions to help meet pupils’ needs. 

Several community members this spring have also noted that opposition to previous budget proposals has centered around disagreement with what the money is being spent on rather than how much is being spent — for example, stating that more funds should be supporting student-facing positions rather than central office or other areas of the budget. 

Gabbeitt said that for her, opposition to spending proposals this spring has been tied to the feeling that students and teachers are not being adequately supported. 

“If I felt like everyone was being treated properly and if the staff were being treated properly, then I would not have voted down the budget,” she said. “I voted (the March 5 budget) down because one, it was just really high, but also because I was like ‘I am not paying this obscene amount of money that’s way too high when our kids and teachers are barely surviving in our schools.’” 

Gabbeitt told the Independent she’s been concerned about the treatment of staff and students in the district for several years, largely stemming from the fall of 2021. Around that time, multiple disruptions involving students at Bristol Elementary School prompted teachers to ask the MAUSD board for help. 

In the weeks that followed, parents, former MAUSD educators, and other community members pointed to a larger issue — the district’s system for supporting students with challenging behaviors and other needs was not working properly. Some community members referred to a shift within the district a few years earlier, which reduced one-on-one paraeducator positions. 

“There were so many bad things happening at school then,” Gabbeitt said of the fall of 2021. “It was a very, very stressful time at the school, and ultimately the teachers and the students were being seriously mistreated and neglected by the administration, and it shows.” 

Gabbeitt began talking with other parents about their experiences in the district. She said she found several other people had stories of not receiving adequate support from administrators regarding their child’s special education needs, bullying or other incidents. 

“Each (story) is pretty much the same,” Gabbeitt said. “Different people, different times but the ending is the same and that’s the teachers ask for help, the teachers report it, and nothing gets done.” 

DISTRICT SUPPORT SYSTEM

The MAUSD board and community members on May 21 got a chance to hear more about the student support services the district provides. At the school board’s meeting that evening, MAUSD Director of Student Support Services Beth McGeorge outlined the staff and systems to meet student support needs. The topic was one of several budget-related matters board members had requested to hear more about ahead of drafting a third budget proposal. 

See the entirety of McGeorge’s presentation and the board discussion that followed on the district’s website, and a recording of the meeting can be found on Neat TV. 

McGeorge noted 85% of MAUSD students don’t qualify for specialized services and are in a general education classroom 100% of the time. Those students may have a 504 or Educational Support Plan. 

Twelve percent of MAUSD students in grades K-12 receive specialized services and have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The remaining 3% of students attend out-of-district placements. 

McGeorge said that through the district’s Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS), in which levels of support build off one another depending on a student’s needs, the district can offer students intensive assistance in areas of literacy, math and social-emotional learning before considering them for special education evaluations. 

For K-12 students, the district currently employees 5.2 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) literacy interventionists, four for math and one for social-emotional learning. These interventionists provide intensive support to students, including those on IEP plans. 

The Independent asked MAUSD Superintendent Patrick Reen if there is a limit to how many students in each grade level at each school can access those services. He said it’s important to ensure the size of the intervention group and the needs of the group are conducive to delivering intensive support. 

 “Ideally, a group of 3-5 students with similar needs would be in a group. Due to levels of need and scheduling, oftentimes students in intensive groups are in the same grade,” he said, noting that having students in the same grade split across different schools can make it challenging to have groups of 3-5 students in one place. “As a result, many groups are 1-2 students which isn’t as efficient as we would like to be and impacts the number of students an interventionist can see. Nevertheless, we believe for intensive intervention to be most effective, the needs of students have to be similar otherwise the intervention becomes diluted and will be less likely to move the needle for students.” 

McGeorge said students receiving this support often have a 30-minute session five days a week. 

“If they don’t make progress, a referral for a special education evaluation is initiated, and that can happen through a classroom teacher, it can happen through our Intensive MTSS Team, it can happen from a parent,” she explained. 

The district’s special education K-12 evaluation team consists of a 1.4 FTE school psychologist, one speech and language pathologist and one special educator. 

“Once a comprehensive special education evaluation determines a student is eligible, and they meet the criteria for special education…an Individualized Learning Plan is developed by the IEP team,” McGeorge said. 

As of May 21, the district had 176 preK-12 students on IEPs, about 15% of the district. Students that qualify for an IEP are assigned a special educator to case manage. MAUSD currently has 11 licensed special educators; four for grades 7-12, six in grades K-6 and one for students in preK. 

Following the presentation, a couple of board members asked what happens when a student is deemed not eligible for an IEP but still needs support. 

“Somebody along the way, teacher, parent, has decided ‘my child is struggling with this, and they need more services,’ and while the IEP process determined ‘he doesn’t qualify,’ that child still probably needs sufficient help somewhere along the way, whether that’s with their classroom teacher or additional supports in the classroom,” board member Melissa Laurie said. 

Board member Kathi Apgar echoed that sentiment. 

“It’s the kids that are falling through the cracks I think that we’re worried about,” she said. “Because they’re falling through the cracks, they don’t qualify for a 504 or an IEP and they’ve already been through the assessment program but they’re enough of a burden on that classroom teacher, so it’s causing additional stress. We can’t afford to lose any more of our teachers, so what is it we can do through the special ed model, the MTSS project that you’ve got going, that will support all of those classroom teachers with all of those kids that might be in the cracks?” 

Reen said there is not a “one size fits all” approach to addressing such situations. 

“We have an obligation to put everything we have into helping that student be successful in that general education classroom before much more significant actions are taken, whether it’s out-of-district placement or something like that. That process is lengthy, it’s iterative,” he said. 

Apgar wasn’t entirely satisfied. 

“My concern is that we try and try and try, we’re also traumatizing all of the rest of the children in that situation,” she said. “Who is supporting that classroom teacher, who is supporting those children and families, too? There’s more at stake here than just trying to solve it for one person or one student, and we’re burning everybody out along the way.” 

The Independent asked Reen if there are cases when this iterative process doesn’t best serve the student in question and their classmates and teachers, as well as how the district identifies those cases and if an alternative approach is taken. 

“We owe it to every student to exhaust all of our resources and support before we consider removing them from their classroom, their school or even their community,” Reen said. “The unfortunate reality is once a student is placed out of district they may never return, so we do not make those decisions lightly.” 

“No doubt, for some of our students with the greatest needs, as we are working to do all we can to support them in their classroom and school community, there are times when what we are doing is not working for the student at that time,” Reen continued. “Sometimes, when what we are doing isn’t working for the individual student that can result in behaviors that impact the learning of others. All behavior is communication and when a student is behaving in a way that is communicating the support we have in place isn’t working we regroup and look for ways to improve the efficacy of the support we are providing. This can include thinking about alternative approaches to support the individual while working to mitigate the impact on others. It isn’t always pretty and it isn’t always successful but it is our legal, moral and ethical obligation to do the best we can for each student.” 

INSIDE THE CLASSROOM 

During the May 21 MAUSD board meeting, Sarah Mangini, a fourth-grade teacher at Bristol Elementary School, offered another perspective on the support services provided to students. One of the points she shared with the board highlighted the limited amount of intervention support available. 

“Something you should know, and I want to make sure is clear, is within a grade level only one to three students get support in reading, and maybe a different one to three students get support in math, and there might be a couple of students that need some SEL support from a counselor,” she said. “I want to make sure it’s clear that it’s not a wide open abundance of lots of support for anyone who needs it. So unfortunately, too many students get no additional support beyond what the classroom teacher can provide.” 

A handful of MAUSD teachers offered additional insight to the Independent on the district’s student support system based on their experiences in the classroom. 

“The picture that is painted for the general public and the board is so misleading,” one teacher told the Independent. “I’ve heard the word ‘robust’ thrown around, like we have a robust (Multi-Tiered System of Supports). The only thing that’s robust is this step-by-step flowchart system of how we put supports in place, and it’s very explicitly spelled out and it’s so restrictive, but the level of support is not robust.” 

The teacher stated that “the way that our district applies its ‘Multi-Tiered System of Supports,’ fewer kids get support than ever before,” and pointed to how only a few students within a grade level can access intervention support and only in one subject area, though many need help in both math and literacy. 

The teacher also noted the process for a parent or teacher to request additional support for a child is slow and inflexible and results in “a large portion of the school year going by before a mysterious “Intensive Team” finally decides whether or not a student qualifies for such support.” 

“It takes a lot of pressure from a teacher and/or parents to get forward movement in this process,” the teacher said. “If a child doesn’t have someone actively promoting their case — a teacher or parent — that student will slip through the cracks.”

The educators who spoke with the Independent also highlighted a lack of adequate support for dysregulated students, which in turn impacts both the student and their peers. 

“Because we’re dealing with (dysregulated students) so much without any support, the kids who are well regulated coming from a good place are being traumatized in school,” another MAUSD teacher told the Independent. “If you don’t feel safe where you’re spending the bulk of your time, how open are you to learning?”

The teacher referred to the district’s efforts to keep students in the general education classroom until all available resources for support are exhausted. 

“If you give this kid enough support so that they are regulated in the classroom and able to find an access point to whatever is being taught, fantastic, but if more times than not this kid is completely off the rails and making other people feel unsafe … we’re trying to get kids up to grade level. We’re really far behind, and by refusing to support all of these kids, we’re not getting anywhere,” the teacher said. 

Teachers pointed to a shift within the district away from using paraeducators to provide additional support in the classroom and the impact that has had on students in need of additional support. One teacher said the district has ended the use of these paraprofessionals except in extreme cases of misbehavior and for students with significant medical needs. 

“Other students who have weak cognitive abilities (as demonstrated in their special ed testing) are left with no support in the regular classroom beyond what the teacher is able to provide,” the teacher said. “These are students who need assistance reading and writing. The gap becomes more and more pronounced with each passing year, as increasingly complex material is introduced. Without a trained paraprofessional by a student’s side, that student is left confused and unsupported (in spite of the classroom teacher’s attempts to read and scribe for them while attending to other students’ needs).”

Another MAUSD teacher underscored the impact a lack of education assistants has had on students in need of extra support. 

“In theory, these students should be receiving intervention, but they’re not. They’re not receiving interventions (because of our flawed MTSS approach) and they’re not getting enough help in the classroom,” the teacher said. “This leaves them falling further and further behind. To complicate things further, we no longer keep students back if they’re not meeting our academic standards. Every single student in (one grade will pass onto the next), whether they’re reading at a kindergarten or 7th grade level. This allows for students to repeatedly fall through the cracks without ever really receiving the help they need in order to progress.”

This concern of students in need of support slipping through the cracks was raised by Gabbeitt at the MAUSD board’s May 21 meeting. 

“What about the students that don’t have a parent to advocate for them? Because if parents have to be there and ask for these things, what about the kid that doesn’t have that parent,” she said. “Because I know, if you’re not the parent asking for this, then that kid doesn’t get it, and there are kids that really need help.” 

She noted teachers also need support in the classroom to help meet students’ needs. 

“To have teachers have to teach all the way down to the level of students that need very targeted support and all the way up to students that are above average and all the way in between and all the curriculum, and then still provide the emotional and behavioral support that students need, is not even remotely possible. They really need (education assistants) in the classroom and a lot of them,” she said.

Reen told the Independent the district has added several positions in recent years to support students, particularly in the area of social and emotional learning. 

“These include behavior assistants, additional counselors, SEL interventionists, social workers and even some additional administrator support,” he said. “The vast majority of these added positions remain in the budget and we continue to look for creative ways to further support the social, emotional and academic needs of our students.” 

LOOKING AHEAD 

Reen said one of the biggest challenges schools face in supporting students with the greatest need is the availability of support from partner programs. 

“For example, when we have done all we can to support a student in their home school and a decision is made for the student to be placed out of district, it can take several months before a placement becomes available. This leaves the district and the family in a challenging situation for an extended period of time,” he said. “Similarly, we have had some placements send students back to MAUSD because the needs of the students were too intense for the placement. This too leaves the district and the family in a challenging place.” 

He noted another challenge comes when a team does reach a consensus around how best to meet the needs of a student. 

“In these cases there is clear authority given to a representative of the school district to make the final decision which the family can challenge through a prescribed process,” Reen said. “The opportunities presented in these cases are for us to continue to work to make the learning environment in our schools more supportive to a wider range of needs and for us to build programming closer to home to meet the needs. This is easier said than done but is something we continue to look for ways to do.” 

MAUSD teachers say they are willing to discuss with district officials ways to improve the current system in place for support students. The Independent asked Reen if there are plans for such conversations. 

“Teachers are routinely involved in conversations with building leaders about our system of support,” Reen said. “Their conversations with principals at building level team meetings and in various other opportunities for discussion help the principals find ways to improve systems at the building level. Principals then share with central office leaders, and sometimes with the entire leadership team, what they are hearing about how to improve the system as a whole for the district. Though indirect, what teachers are saying about what is working and isn’t does influence how our system evolves over time.” 

The Independent reached out to MAUSD Board Chair Erin Jipner to learn more about the challenges and opportunities seen in addressing community members’ concerns that students are not getting support they need. 

“When approaching any topic hardwired on emotions, it is important that there is true understanding of impact on the whole system. So often we start looking at one variable because it is observable and important that we forget to look deeper,” Jipner said. “At the board level, it has been extremely hard to navigate the gap between anecdotal evidence from our community members and how our administration is describing what is happening. So far, we have evidence to suggest there are realized impacts on families and students and, we have evidence to suggest that the district continues to build systems to meet those needs.

 “What this board has not yet done, is dive in with a holistic lens on the system,” Jipner continued. “This board has many opportunities to learn the systems, rebuild some policies to help us address concerns and collect data to ensure that educational priorities are being met, and continue our community outreach.”

Jipner noted that the board has had little room to make actionable change to address such concerns as it has been rallying around budgetary concerns. 

“However, the board has made a lot of room to listen to our community through everything they would like to address,” Jipner said. “The board also ensured that all current staffing and support levels were maintained and reallocated funds within our currently proposed budget to help facilitate the ability for our administration to add more student facing positions into our district schools. Moving forward, we hope to continue building the systems needed to adequately demonstrate the state of our districts’ health and the ways in which we are monitoring changes in that health.” 

As for the district’s teachers, one that spoke with the Independent acknowledged a divide between the district’s administrators and educators. 

“There is so much friction between the administrative office and people on the ground, and that’s recognized I think by all parties,” the teacher said. “Naturally, we should all be working toward trying to smooth that over and get rid of the us versus them split because we’re in the business of supporting students and helping them grow, but when the administration goes before the board and says so much misleading information, it doesn’t help build trust.” 

When asked what educators need to see from administrators to adequately address students’ needs, as well as and teachers’ needs and concerns, one educator said the district’s administration needs to be more present in MAUSD schools in order to see and experience what teachers are every day. 

“The people making the calls as to how much support we need have no idea what’s going on and continue to claim that they do,” the teacher stated, pointed to potential spending cuts identified earlier this spring that would have eliminated two special educator roles and other student-facing positions. “While we continue to ask for this support, we are continuously denied. It needn’t be our word against theirs. The proof is evident here every single day and is easily visible to those who wish to truly see.” 

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