Greenwich parents say 'time to act is now' after audit calls for fixes in special education services

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GREENWICH — Even though they said an exhaustive new audit of special education services in the Greenwich Public Schools was excruciating to read, parents said it was validating as they spoke out about their concerns about their children’s education.

Jenni Reynolds told the Board of Education Tuesday night that she moved to Greenwich three years ago with the intention of sending both her daughters, one with Down syndrome, to the local public schools.

Her family chose the Greenwich schools because of its “claimed inclusive approach,” said Reynolds, who spoke via Zoom.

But she said there needs to be a way for all kids to succeed in the classroom.

“I implore you to act on the sake of all kids,” she told school board members. “You have had numerous studies telling you GPS (Greenwich Public Schools) is decades behind. The time to act is now. The time to fund is now. ... So many lives depend on this.”

Parents and other community members had their first opportunity at the special meeting Tuesday night to comment publicly on the audit of the long-embattled special education department.

A dozen attendees spoke — virtually and at a podium in the auditorium at Central Middle School — with an open format as Board of Education members took notes and listened without responding.

“In reading this exhaustive and comprehensive report, the two words that came most to mind were opportunity and urgency,” said Katie Yu, the mother of a student in special education and a member of a steering committee that worked with the consulting firm on the audit.

“Overall, parents may feel both gratified and disappointed to see that parents have been right, as the report details inconsistencies across buildings” in special education practices, she said.

Public Consulting Group, the Boston-based consulting firm hired to complete the audit, late last month released an executive summary of its review of the Pupil Personnel Services Department, which includes special education services. The firm issued its full 127-page report of its findings soon after.

The full report is available on the school district’s website and outlines 28 recommendations for improving the special education services, which have been the target of criticism from parents and teachers for more than a decade.

The audit calls for broad changes in the department’s practices, culture and even its name. The summary outlines recommendations for change in six categories: learning environment and specialized services; leadership; high expectations; human capital; systems and structure; and family and community engagements.

The report also notes that many of the issues outlined have persisted, despite repeatedly being highlighted in previous reviews of the department.

“In many respects, GPS’ special education program continues to operate much like one may have in 1997,” the report states.

The school board is now tasked with developing a plan to solicit parent feedback and implement changes with help from PCG. Full implementation of the recommendations could take three to five years, according to the summary.

At the meeting, Caroline Lerum told of walking into the office of the former director of the Pupil Personnel Services Department and seeing a sign on the door with a cactus that said, “Not a hugger.”

“On the one hand, this could be seen as funny. On the other hand, however, what message does this message send to families, staff or anyone who walked into that director’s office?” said Lerum, whose child was formerly in special education in Greenwich schools.

Turning to the new Interim Chief Pupil Personnel Services Officer Stacey Heiligenthaler, who replaced retiring director Mary Forde, Lerum said she hoped “more than anything” that Heiligenthaler embraces the special education community, change and a mindset that puts children’s needs first — “before the politics, before the budget, and before anyone’s pride.”

At the end of the meeting, Heiligenthaler got up from her chair and walked over to a group of women in the auditorium.

“We’re going to do some good work,” she said to the women.

While many parents were upset about the contents of the audit, some were hopeful and “relieved” that Superintendent Toni Jones is leading a charge and is now presenting the opportunity to improve the special education services. Many viewed the Tuesday night meeting as an opportunity to offer next-step solutions.

School district leaders should provide an interim update in three years, with full updates scheduled for six and 10 years, to allow parents to stay aware of how school leaders have progressed in implementing the recommendations from the report, Yu said.

Since the special education program has not been revamped in so many years, it’s vital that school staff receive mandatory professional development, to acquire updated skills to educate Greenwich children appropriately, Lerum added.

The report calls for more than just minor tweaking, said Audra O’Donovan, the mother of a student in special education: “There needs to be accountability.”

“Administrators should find solutions, not reasons to obstruct, and instead work as partners with parents. Be transparent,” O’Donovan said. “Keep the child front and center. … Your next step is crucial. Let’s think outside the box. Let’s look at the special ed. schools around us and see what works. We have a tremendous opportunity available. Let’s seize this opportunity.”

School board members are working to schedule an action planning meeting soon, said Peter Bernstein, chair of the Board of Education.

“So, watch for an announcement from the district when we get that meeting scheduled,” he said.

Includes prior reporting by staff writer Justin Papp.

tatiana.flowers@thehour.com @TATIANADFLOWERS