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MRPS Focuses on Special Ed

photo of Montpelier High school with blooming apple tree
Montpelier High School in spring. Photo courtesy MHS website.
The Montpelier Roxbury Public School District recently received feedback from an independent research group regarding special education practices. The group, called The Ability Challenge, interviewed classroom teachers, special educators, and others directly involved with special education services and came up with a detailed analysis of what is going well and what the system can change. It turns out the district has mastered some practices, but has plenty of room to grow. Superintendent Libby Bonesteel promised school board members more curriculum and instructional changes as a result.

The Ability Challenge findings mirror those of the Vermont Agency of Education’s 2016–2017 District Management Group study called “Expanding and Strengthening Best-Practice Supports for Students Who Struggle.” That report led to Vermont’s Act 173 in 2018, which called for Vermont schools to develop strong supports to improve learning and ensure equity for all students. Vermont lawmakers believed that soaring numbers of special education students, costs, and questionable educational and social outcomes would be turned around by investing “in inclusive general education instruction and support.”

Act 173 Sets the Stage

Implementing Act 173 was hampered by COVID-19 disruptions to student instruction, attendance, and turnover in school staff at every level, including teaching and substitute positions. Work on improving instruction and integrating special education students into general education classes quickly stalled.

The Vermont model in Act 173 calls for 100% of students to get personalized instruction in the classroom. It targets 5–15% of the student body as requiring extra support interventions, including special education, with up to an additional 5% needing intensive support. The goal is for general education to serve the majority of students within their regular classrooms.

Four years after the passage of Act 173, MRPS has not yet reached that goal, and parents are recognizing this. 

Peggy-Sue Van Nostrand, in her Nov. 2, 2022, presentation to the school board, reported that 20% of MRPS students are identified as special education or “504 eligible”; 11% of students have individual education plans (IEPs). Education referrals spiked by 21 students in that time frame, despite increased intervention services, with 76% of the referrals from parents. According to the fall 2022 Renaissance STAR Reading assessment data, nearly 40% of students were identified as either needing, or on watch for, intervention services. These percentages may indicate COVID-related academic loss, lagging classroom instruction, or both.

This chart, from the Special Education Needs Assessment Report and Recommendations prepared by The Ability Challenge, March 2023, is a snapshot of the degree to which MRPS has developed core curriculum and instruction competencies and inclusive practices. 

Did COVID-19 Interrupt Learning?

One state-approved test for identifying students needing additional instructional support is the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBAC) of English Language Arts. In 2016, the only year in which results are available on the state website, MRPS students tested below the state standard. The 2016 test showed that 36% of district third-graders, 29% of fourth-graders, and 21% of fifth-graders were not considered proficient. Those students should now be in grades 9, 10, and 11. On Nov. 2, 2022, the district reported that these students, now in grade 9, had scores in English Language Arts on the SBAC in the “proficient” level, an indication that reading instruction had been effective during the intervening years. This looked good for the schools, but the next report showed another side to the story.

A study of district special education services was first planned three years ago with the University of Vermont. It was made urgent because of pandemic disruptions. Starting in March 2020, with the abrupt shutdown of schools because of COVID-19 and through the next two pandemic years, the district faced high administrative and staff turnover, lack of professional and substitute staff, and critical interruptions in total student school days, not to mention low student attendance.

 What did that look like? During those years, administrative turnover included two special education directors,  three principals at Union Elementary School, four principals at Main Street Middle School, and two principals at Montpelier High School. The current principal at Roxbury Village School  was hired in summer 2020.

Bonesteel and Mike Berry, director of curriculum and technology, both joined the district about a year before the pandemic, but after March 2020, both assumed responsibilities beyond their job descriptions, ranging from administering COVID-19 tests to the granular details of daily management of the schools. A veteran teaching staff — about 70% of teachers surveyed in the report had been teaching more than 11 years — helped maintain stability.

The Ability Challenge report, authored by Sarah Berger and Kristen Briggs, from remote and on-site visits to district schools in winter 2023, rated the actions needed to strengthen curriculum, instruction, and goals for all students. The report found many areas of “opportunity” for improvement. Of 32 audited strategic indicators, the district is “proficient” in just five, and achieved 22 of the indicators in the “fair/emerging” range. Notably, five of the 32 indicators were barely starting to get addressed — or were “developing.” 

Ability Challenge found a district strength is a belief that an inclusive system helps all students learn, a critical building block for changing teaching practices. However, the assessment found that teachers lack clarity about the curriculum, and lacked the instructional and assessment skills to put this belief into action. The areas that the ABC report targeted as needing strengthening are teamwork, explicit teaching and learning goals, inclusive practices, including school schedules, and exact understanding of each student’s strengths and needs.

Responding to the Report

The district has been developing a system of supports. In school year 2021–22, the district allocated $1,173,201 in federal funds to increase support staffing and to provide professional development in reading, writing, math, and inclusive practices. Although the money has been allocated, much of it has not yet been spent.

Bonesteel said she and her staff have started to develop “broad themes“ for addressing “the high leverage” recommendations raised in this audit. The district plans to contract with Ability Challenge for foundational training over the next several years, she said.

Bonesteel also said the schools will start by improving scheduling and developing “priority standards.” The first focus areas, she said, will be classroom instruction and proficiency skills. Also, according to the report, all staff members need to learn how to personalize instruction. In addition, Bonesteel said she and her administrative team plan to improve parent engagement, in part through creating family advisory committees. 

Parents have been particularly engaged at school board meetings, showing up for the public comment section on a regular basis. Current school board policy allows the public to speak during a short public comment section at the beginning of each regular meeting but not during other parts of the meeting. Board chair Jim Murphy said information presented in public comments is appreciated and “it does shape our agendas, and we do follow up with administration to check in on matters and make sure they’re addressed.”