SCHOOL COMMITTEE RACE Q&A: Samaha, Newhouse & Fennelly Discuss District’s Special Education Department

WILMINGTON, MA — Jesse Fennelly, Jay Samaha, and incumbent Jo Newhouse are running for the three seats up for grabs in this year’s School Committee race.

Despite running unopposed, Wilmington Apple felt it was important for readers to get to know the candidates a bit more. Wilmington Apple is asking the candidates weekly questions leading up to the April 27 Town Election.

This week’s question: How is the district’s Special Education Department performing? Where is it performing well? Where could it be improved? Do you support Dr. Brand’s recent proposal to restructure the department? 

Below are the candidates’ responses, in their own words:

Jesse Fennelly

My knowledge of the district’s special education services is slightly lacking as my children do not currently utilize these services.  That said, in conversations I have had with folks around the district my sense is that special education in Wilmington is a work in progress.  While I believe we are moving in the right direction, I think we would be remiss to not discuss the financial impacts of special education on a school budget and how important it is that we work with our state delegation to push for implementation of the Foundation Review Commission’s recommendation along with full funding of the so-called “circuit breaker” funds for special education.  I firmly believe that full funding would allow the district to address needs in the special education program.

To that end, I support Dr. Brand’s proposal to restructure the Special Ed department, provided that, as he said at the school committee meeting when he announced the proposal, that it will not have a negative impact on either the education that students are receiving, or the workload of the impacted teachers.  If Dr. Brand believes that the proposal works without stretching either the budget or the workload of the educators currently in place, then I would support his initiative.

Jesse Fennelly
Jesse Fennelly

Jo Newhouse (Incumbent)

As with any organization, there are those who exceed expectations and those who simply do not, and those who fall short need to be held accountable.  The current director of Student Support Services is quite capable and consistently puts forth the kind of effort that we should demand of our administrative staff.

Systemically, the district does have some  issues when it comes to special education, some of which will take time and resources to address.   On a positive note the district  is currently conducting a comprehensive review of  all of our special education programs.  I support  this review, so we can better address the needs of our students, as there are some areas that definitely need improvement.

Another system challenge, which is not unique to Wilmington, is the fact that more and more special education students are being placed within the general education classrooms.  This generally is a positive trend, but  too often the necessary support for these students and their teachers have not increased accordingly, making it harder for all students to learn.   This problem is compounded by our system of scheduling, which allows little or no time for meaningful collaboration among teachers, assistants, guidance counselors and other staff.

It is important to note that Wilmington, like many other districts,  has taken the important step of establishing many integrated classes, but many of them are not truly inclusive.  For a classroom, a school, and even an entire system to be inclusive is more about a process and a culture, and not simply about student placements.  Establishing a culture of inclusion is something that we all need to work on.  It makes sense on many levels, including on an economic level.

In short I support the proposal to restructure the department, but I also believe we need to review the results with a critical eye.  The job description of the Director of Student Support Services has been more than any one capable and diligent person can be expected to do, since the position was created a few years ago.  We need to make some adjustments to better support the Director, the students and the district.  In the same vein, Special Education has rigorous and important compliance and regulatory aspects that need to be carefully monitored.    For these and other reasons, while I support the restructuring generally, I still have some concerns about taking the ” .6 special education teacher” away, as I am not yet convinced whether it will have a negative effect on some children’s education.

Jo Newhouse
Jo Newhouse

Jay Samaha

Special Education has come a long way since its inception in the mid-1970s.  The state of Massachusetts has been on the cutting edge of this progress and as a member of the School Committee I hope to help Wilmington become a leader in innovative thinking when it comes to Special Education.

I have been working in Special Education since 1998 and it holds a special place in my heart.  I believe we have a legal and moral obligation to serve every child in Special Education in the most appropriate and least restrictive setting we can.  Often times this means inclusion, where students with special needs are educated alongside their typical peers in a typical classroom environment with both special education and regular education teachers.  Other times, inclusion is not the most appropriate setting and schools are obligated to find a setting that better meets the needs of the student. Either way, a top performing Special Education Department will look at each individual student’s needs and then make determinations.

Anecdotally I have heard many good things about Special Education in Wilmington.   I have heard of hard working, dedicated Special Educators and students who have shown great progress.  The goal, of course, is to make this true for all of our students with special needs.

According to the 2018 Coordinated Program Review (CPR),  there are a few areas where Special Education in Wilmington has fallen short.  These areas include the appropriate identification of students with a Specific Learning Disability, the full utilization of the pre-referral process for students before directly referring students to Special Education, and the transfer of rights to students when they reach the age of 18.  According to the Superintendent’s Report at the April 10 School Committee Meeting, the majority of these areas have been corrected. I applaud the district on these moves. The CPR also recommended an evaluation of Special Education in Wilmington. I am eager to hear the results of this report.

I hope to see an increase in the use of and a meaningful update to the District Curriculum Accommodation Plan which offers teachers tools they can use for all students and frequently can help students without the need for Special Education Services.  I think our participation in the SEEM Collaborative has been incredibly beneficial to the town and I hope to see this collaboration continue.

Considering the importance of Special Education and the financial, legal, and moral obligations of Special Education, I fully support Dr. Brand’s plan to restructure the administrative leadership of Special Education.   Currently Wilmington employs a Director of Student Support Services who oversees all of Special Education in addition to Behavioral Health, School Counseling, and Administrative Assistants. I believe this role is spread too thin.  Dr. Brand has proposed creating a Director of Special Education. Having one administrator in charge of Special Education exclusively will allow for our students and families to be better served. I also appreciate the fact that Dr. Brand was creative in his creation of this position.  Instead of just adding a new role and asking the town for more money, he has consolidated and re-interpreted roles so that this move will be budget neutral.

Jay Samaha
Jay Samaha

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