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Director of student services says goal is to “lessen the impact of disabilities”

abass@northstarreporter.com

When North Attleborough Public Schools Director of Student Services Margaret Camire read a survey conducted by the Commission on Disability, she said she was not surprised by the results.

The survey, which was conducted from September to October, found that respondents said special education services provided by the school district should receive more funding for the Fiscal Year 2025 budget. 

In an interview with the North Star Reporter, Camire discusses the services provided by NAPS, the results of the survey and how her department plans to address the needs of parents and students who want more funding for special education programs and services in school.

 

What is your role at North Attleborough Public Schools?

I am the director of student services for the school district and the way I describe it to people who aren’t part of the educational system is that student services essentially oversees any kind of at-risk services. So, a big part of that includes students with identified disabilities and it also includes students who have a 504 accommodation plans based on disability.

Can you tell me about the 504 plans?

Yeah, so 504 actually goes beyond the educational system. The proper term for it is called the Rehabilitation Act, and it’s an accommodation plan based on a disability. In this case, the question we have to answer is if the disability is substantially impacting their educational environment. So, you could have a workplace 504 compensation plan. So these are not direct services in Individual Education Plans (IEPs); it’s more of a classroom or workplace plan. 

How many students are on 504s and how many students have IEPs?

We have about 200 students with 504 plans and we have about 800 students with IEPs and that’s about 19 to 20 percent of the school district which is all of North Attleborough. There are 10 different categories that the Department of Education describes for students with disabilities.

Right now in North Attleborough, our biggest disability category are students identified with a health-based disability, which means anything that might be considered diagonalisable such as a diagnosis of ADHD. So, you’re talking attentional-based deficits, executive functioning deficits, sort of just a general kind of learning and cognitive functioning stuff. So, when the survey from the Commission on Disability talked about learning disabilities, that’s our second biggest category, which is called specific learning disabilities. Those fit in the category where students need reading comprehension, written expression or math fluency. Oftentimes, students with identified dyslexia fall in this category. 

The survey was released by the commission this month and two things stuck out to me. The first was that most respondents wanted more funding to be directed towards special education programs in schools and throughout town. The second was that a majority of respondents said they find it difficult to seek resources about education. What were your thoughts on the results?

I wasn’t surprised that most of the responses were from folks with students in the education system. We heard from the Commission on Disability on whether we could help and we pushed it (the survey) out for students and parents to take. I was excited to see that the Commission on Disability is trying to get a more global sense of how inclusive and supportive we are for the range of displays. My sense is that we could do better in helping folks understand the range of disabilities. I think we’d have to sort of dig deeper on what that means. As a school, we provide quite a range of services. We look at our cohorts, we look at trends, we try to infuse, support and stay current on what is most appropriate. I think a big part of what you’ll see in the district is that students just don’t arrive with a disability. Our goal is to not necessarily eliminate disabilities, we’re developing strategies and tools to lessen the impact of the disability

So how do you figure out what each child needs?

The special education process, which is very well regulated, is a team-based process. I don’t sit in on team meetings, however, I meet with team chairs on a weekly basis. So each building has a team chair, a part-time team chair, and people who facilitate the team meetings, which include parent or guardian service providers and general education teachers. That’s where we work on what’s the disability a child has and what are the goals. For example, if they need to work on their gait, they might need physical therapy. Some may need social communication and pragmatic skills. We identify the goals and once you have your goals identified, you talk about what services the child needs.

There are some parents who might come to the school in order to understand if a child has a disability. How does the school work with these parents?

So, this is the team process, a partnership. We have to be in it as equally curious people about how to see a child succeed. And so I think a big part of that is a parent can initiate and say, “hey, I’m concerned about the child’s progress.” A teacher can initiate it for him and a special education evaluation is a pretty intensive process to assess the child’s skill set. We then come to the table with the findings and that’s where we might see some disagreement. Let’s say the district says we think the child requires three times of reading a week and the parent says five times and so our job or my job is to coach people to keep working collaboratively together. Because at the end of the day, every parent appropriately should advocate for their child’s successes.

Let’s talk about the impact of COVID-19. A lot of parents were put in the hot seat to teach their kids who have special needs without the required resources that they have. What did NAPS do to help ease the transition for these students?

So, what I can say is I started in North Attleborough about the year sort of after COVID. There was definitely inconsistency in how districts provided instruction. So, when I arrived here, it was interesting to sort of see what we were prioritizing. I started in July and we were one of the few in-person extended school years (ESY) for students with disabilities. Many districts were hesitant to open back up in July. I made the decision along with the superintendent that we were going to be one of the few districts in the area to open back up because I had significant concerns about how to serve our most severely disabled students, and many of them are the children and access. We opened up and we served children at ELC all the way to grade five. So, from a parent perspective, or from parents’ perspective, North Attleborough was ahead of the other districts who opted to just not do any ESY because they were still really in shutdown mode. So, there were a variety of different factors and we opened back up because of what we’ve seen comparable all the districts in the area increase in children being identified for special education post COVID. 

Roosevelt Elementary just received funds from the Town Council for a new playground. How do kids with special education needs learn from play and do the playgrounds offer a way for them to experience recess?

So, if you look at the Amvet playground, considerations were included about how children with or without disabilities experience play. It’s really a matter of how we envision what playtime looks like for each child, regardless of disability. We have to go into what our objective is and the objective of the children who are in a playground together, because they’re exchanging greetings and they’re able to get some physical energy out in fresh air. Regardless of whether we have a disability or not, these are the experiences that we want our children to have. There is thought being put in when the playgrounds are being built. 

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