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  • Spotlight on Special Education September 2021

    Posted by Liza O'Connell on 9/1/2021


    Dear Parents and Guardians,


    Welcome back to the 2021-2022 school year.  Last year will be remembered as an unforgettable time in history; a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, racial reckoning and unanticipated challenges for schools. 

    With pride for our extraordinary faculty, staff and community, to all who have persevered, the Dedham Public Schools will resume full, in-person learning for the upcoming year. Individual Education Programs (IEPs) are required to be in place for the first day of school, ensuring F.A.P.E. for every child with special needs.  In exceptional circumstances, remote learning may continue for students who may be attending in-district virtual schools, or for students with medical conditions who may need services in a home or hospital setting.  This requires a Physician’s Affirmation Form, provided by a physician or psychiatrist.

    As students return to full time, in-person learning, it is more important than ever to build strong relationships with families and continue with meaningful family engagement initiatives that may facilitate family participation.  The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) contemplates that IEP meetings may now be held in-person or “virtually”. Specifically, districts can hold IEP Team meetings using this alternative means of meeting participation if you, the parent or guardian, agrees.  Based on survey results from the last few months of school, the special education department has confirmed that there is enthusiasm for continuing with a virtual option for IEP meetings.  To this end, your son or daughter’s case manager (liaison) will contact you to seek your agreement to participate in a virtual IEP meeting.  With your agreement, the district will issue the Team Meeting Invitation (N3) and Attendance Sheet (N3A) by mail, email, or other electronic means (i.e. your preferred method of communication) followed by the virtual platform’s dial-in information.  The district will continue to provide interpreters for limited English proficient families for any IEP meetings and will translate any relevant documents.  The attendance sheet and Team Meeting Summary will reflect that participation was “virtual”.


    I continue to be truly honored to work with my special education leadership team, a talented and dedicated group of professionals who have committed themselves to thinking about academic, social, and behavioral learning each and every day.  Some important administrative changes have been made for the upcoming school year.

    Some of you may have heard that Jenny McGowan has transitioned to her new role as Interim Greenlodge Principal.  Taking Jenny’s place is Jessica Ranahan, a talented and well respected special educator from the Riverdale School who will serve as special education team leader for both Riverdale and Greenlodge.  Meghan Armstrong, special education team leader for Avery and Oakdale, will be transitioning to the Dedham Middle School full time and we are delighted to welcome Liz Amato who will take Meghan’s place as special education team leader for the Avery and Oakdale schools.  Louise D’Amato, special education team leader, will continue in a full time capacity supporting Dedham High School.  Rebecca McCabe continues in her role as Early Childhood Coordinator at the ECEC, and Betsey McKeon and Joanne Jordan will continue to provide out-of-district coordination and support for students attending out-of-district schools.  For your convenience, an Administrative Directory is enclosed with this edition of Spotlight and can be found on the special education website as well.

    As parents and guardians, you have awesome responsibilities in raising your children, who have unique talents, skills, and challenges.  As educators, we share that responsibility by creating safe learning environments and teaching those invaluable skills that will carry our students (your children) through a lifetime of learning beyond high school.  Thank you for your ongoing support for adapting to the myriad of shifts and changes that have been necessary.  Sharing your ideas, expertise, and time to support our schools have been countless.  Much of our student success involves your dedication as parents and guardians.

    Dedham stands out for our highly specialized continuum of educational, therapeutic, and support services across all schools.  The 2021-2022 special education program descriptions are posted on our district website and hard copies are available upon request.  In close collaboration with principals, faculty, and staff, we strive to support building based initiatives so that students feel comfortable within the learning environment and unique culture found in their school building.  I look forward to continuing our work together as we continue to shape a bright future for special education.


    See you soon,


    Liza O’Connell

    Director of Special Education

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  • COVID-19 A Year in Review

    Posted by Liza O'Connell on 3/1/2021


    Special education covers a range of needs, from children who could use a little help with reading  to children with visual or hearing impairments, to children with multiple disabilities. Special  education students have Individual Education Programs, or IEPs, which are legal contracts  between schools and parents that set goals for the child and outline the special education services  to be provided. 

    As partners with our families, we consider the "disability" itself by investigating the degree of  disability (multi-diagnosis), the severity of that disability, and the chronic nature of that  disability. Systemically, we want to group students in ways that make sense for their learning  and achievement. Inclusion, pull asides, pull out models are considered. The third major  consideration is building of in-school district programs to meet the needs of those students, both  programmatically and fiscally. The fourth major consideration is developing major blocks of  services school-wide or providing services in an out-of-district setting. 

    These four steps are the rubrics that are used in understanding the child, his/her needs, grouping  children, creating programs for them at the school district or providing education elsewhere.  When these steps are completed, special education assesses and reassesses each step and starts  over to ensure that we have met two standards: The child's educational needs are  comprehensively met and the fiduciary responsibilities are recognized, completed, and executed.  Special education recognizes its accountability in both of these areas. 

    Major Challenges Encountered 

    Last March 2020, when schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government  stated that everything within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) - all  timelines, services, and regulations for ensuring educational progress - remained in force. This  presented a multitude of challenging situations for special education teams to implement,  however, it is the underpinning of all special education laws in the U.S., and for a child with  special needs, it’s incumbent upon the IEP team to figure out how to provide services and  supports that will ensure educational progress, pandemic or not.

    During the period of school closure, specialists and clinicians were cognizant of family  entitlements that included: 

    • Continued adherence to special education mandates and regulations; IEP meetings, progress reports, etc.
    • Continued adherence to mandates for assessments to make data informed decisions. Provision of compensatory services for special education services where necessary to ensure educational progress.
    • Provision of comprehensive Instructional Learning Plans (ILPs) during weeks/months of remote learning.
    • Provision of Extended School Year special education services for students in danger of educational regression

    Key Initiatives & Results 

    Specific to Dedham, the special education leadership team acknowledges that all children learn  best when they feel secure, supported, acknowledged, and connected to others. For students with  learning, attention or behavioral disabilities - being at home without teachers, without specialists  or clinicians - is challenging. Keeping up with coursework on multiple online platforms can be  confusing and lead to a loss of confidence. For students with moderate to severe  disabilities - who require hand over hand support for tasks such as walking, holding a pencil,  using a keyboard, or simply maintaining attentional focus - remote learning is an almost impossible way to learn effectively.  

    Considering new ways of preventing academic regression and loss of life skills became a  challenge for our exemplary general and special education staff, including but not limited to: 

    • Ensuring that all students had access to chromebooks, iPads, assistive technology, etc. Retooling the school experience:

    o Providing teacher planning time for creating individualized lessons that were  accessible, goal oriented, and engaging.  

    o Ensuring that special education learning spaces had multiple configurations. o Leveraging technology to bridge physical and social distance. 

    o Purchasing relevant on-line materials accessible in a remote learning  

    environment; demonstrate flexibility and creativity as to where learning could happen. 

    • Providing meaningful compensatory services when needed through expert contracted service providers.
    • Committing to in-person learning whenever possible for as much of the school week as possible.

    Fiscal Considerations & Results 

    Our guiding fiscal principles for special education service delivery have remained the same  during the COVID-19 pandemic and the following questions are asked: Does this dollar help  this child? Can we improve services and still have the same services for this dollar? Is every  dollar connected to the program? Is every child connected to the program? Can we have high  standards and optimal performances for our children and yet be cost effective? 

    Moreover, our special education teams routinely apply additional rubrics to making decisions  about student needs. “Has the pandemic stalled learning?” “Are new and/or compensatory  interventions required for learning and achievement?” Do our actions benefit the child?”  

    These steps are the rubrics that are used in understanding the child, his/her needs, grouping  children, and creating programs for them at the school district or elsewhere. During the  pandemic, it has been necessary to provide compensatory materials and services to offset breaks  in learning and/or to support remote learning. Special education recognizes its accountability to  address a child’s educational needs while balancing our fiduciary responsibilities.  

    Conclusions & Lessons Learned 

    Students with disabilities are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).  During the COVID-19 pandemic, providing compensatory services associated with providing services to children that might have been lost or interrupted is an additional obligation.  Dedham IEP teams have found that preemptively addressing this issue at routinized IEP  meetings allowed IEP teams to anticipate, talk about, and target specific needs before concerns  blossomed and became potentially budget breaking over time (litigation, out of district  placements, etc.).  

    Fashioning compensatory services can be difficult, but providing additional services during the  summer and/or outside of the school day have effectively offset the potential loss of academic,  therapeutic, and/or life skills. The special education department has found that the most cost  effective means of providing special education and related services was to make them available  up front, during the first half of the school year. In general, this approach has yielded the  following positive outcomes: 

    • Collaborative meetings and mutual agreements between home and school have prevented  costly litigation.  
    • Parent/guardian attendance and participation at remote IEP meetings has significantly  increased, resulting in enhanced compliance with IEP timelines and stronger home/school  partnerships.  
    • Number of students in out-of-district placements have remained stable. Short term pandemic investments have prevented long term material costs.
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  • Spotlight on Special Education 2020

    Posted by Elizabeth  O’Connell on 9/3/2020

    September 3, 2020

    Dear Parents and Guardians,

    Welcome back!  As of  Friday, March 13, 2020, we paused our educational programs in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) in order to protect the health and safety of our students and staff.  While the challenges we have all faced over the past six months have been daunting, we are all becoming more comfortable with the idea of social distancing, and remote learning.  We have learned new skills, adapted to new environments, and learned that we can, above all else, count on one another.  For the  countless ways you have supported our schools and programs, thank you.


    As a reminder, our school year begins on September 16, 2020.  September 16, 17, and 18 will be remote days only.  As of September 21st, our schools  will begin the school year in a phased in hybrid model.  For all students, Wednesday is remote to allow for deep cleaning of all schools.    

     We want all parents to know that, for the purpose of student placement in classrooms, careful consideration was given to input from staff and families as well as student learning styles.  We believe that you will find that your student’s

    programming  is  academically and socially balanced.  Our commitment to providing high quality comprehensive educational and therapeutic services to our students with special needs is unwavering.


    In the following 10 days, your student’s case manager/liaison will be reaching out to you to introduce themselves, to review how special education services will be provided to your child over the next few months, confirm start dates, and/or provide detailed schedule information as needed.   


    All  members of the  special education leadership team continue to be an important resource as well.  This amazing group of educators  provide continuous care, comfort, and exemplary leadership each and every day.  A copy of your 2020-2021 special education leadership  directory is attached to this letter for your convenience.  Also enclosed is the Parent’s Notice of Procedural Safeguards and Medicaid paperwork. 


    Finally, as we anticipate a return to school, please review the district’s  COVID-19 safety protocols.  It goes without saying that any household contact with COVID-19, symptoms (e.g., fever, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath, loss of smell or taste, or diarrhea), or medication given to lower a fever requires precautionary follow up: staying  home and contacting your family physician.   


    I continue to appreciate your flexibility and patience. Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or concerns.


    All my best,


    Elizabeth  O’Connell

    Director of Special Education

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