There was one thing that Superintendent Joshua P. Starr wanted to get out of the way on Monday night.
Standing in front of a room of about 80 parents of special education students and special education staff at this month’s Special Education Advisory Committee meeting, the first thing he did was explain why he didn’t mention students with special needs in his State of the Schools speech earlier this month.
Starr said he had received several emails from parents who were upset that he did not mention the group. About eight parents at the meeting raised their hands when he asked who they had written him.
He said when he said his staff is focused on the needs of all students, he meant it — special education students included. He said he chose not to list all groups of students, although that was in a previous version of the speech.
“In many ways when parents are fighting for something, then the absence may signify something greater,” Starr said. “That is not the case at all.”
Parents continued to bring up the speech throughout the meeting, which was held so that parents could ask Starr general questions about special education services in Montgomery County Public Schools.
Many parents also asked how Starr would train teachers to work better with their students, and asked him to devote more attention to ensuring students were getting social and emotional skills they need in their future.
Starr told parents it is his goal to teach students social skills, along with academic and critical thinking skills. He said individualized education programs may have room for social and emotional goals.
After the meeting, many parents said Starr answered the questions the best as he could, having to speak generally.
Chrisandra A. Richardson, associate superintendent of the office of special education and student services, said after the meeting she felt gratified about the work the school system is doing.
When asked if the school system is doing enough to train teachers to work with special education students, she said much of it has to do with school climate, but the school system should look into the types of training teachers are receiving.
“We need a deeper examination of the kinds of professional development we have for all teachers,” she said.
About 11 percent of all Montgomery County Public School students are special education students — a percentage that has remained similar since at least 2003, according to school system documents. But, in the last decade, inclusion for special education students has grown. The percentage of students who spend 80 percent or more of their day inside their general classroom has grown from about 54 percent to about 69 percent from the 2004-2005 to 2011-2012 school year.
The move to inclusion is a good one, Starr said.
“Kids have chances now they didn’t have before,” he said.
Kerry Brenner, who has a son at Beall Elementary who is on the autism spectrum, said she didn’t feel Starr completely answered her questions.
She asked Starr how teachers were being trained under the new Curriculum 2.0 to make sure that students are helping one another in groups. Under the new curriculum, students spend more time in groups and less listening to a teacher lecture. She also asked how acceleration would happen for her son, who is advanced in math.
Starr said teachers were given an “enormous amount of professional development.” He said some schools are doing better than others. Regarding math acceleration, Starr said teachers will accelerate students by allowing them to look deeper into subjects.
Brenner responded that those opportunities were not there for her son.
“There are more and more kids on the autism spectrum in regular schools, and the school district needs to be devoting attention to what students need in home schools,” Brenner said.