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TSEPAC Hosts School Committee Candidate Forum

The TSEPAC (Tewksbury Special Education Parent Advisory Council) held a School Committee Candidate forum to ask questions specific to special education. The forum was moderated by TMHS Junior Justin Darrigo, run by TSEPAC co-chair Dina Mancini, and attended by all three School Committee candidates: Kayla Biagioni-Smith, Christine Chesbrough and Richard Russo.

Here are some highlights.

Q: What specific special education events or workshops have you attended?

Biagioni-Smith recounted discovering one of her children had a social emotional disorder and how she began attending regular TSEPAC meetings to get more information. She has also attended an event held at the (since closed) Blue Wave.

Chesbrough has attended both TSEPAC meetings and a workshop to learn about the struggles of special education students. Russo has not attended any events run my the TSEPAC but reached out to Director of Student Services Rick Pelletier to get a better understanding of of social education services. As the President of Tewksbury Youth Football and Cheer, Russo said he has worked to make accommodations for children who want to participate to ensure an inclusive program.

Q: If you are visiting a classroom, what would you look for to ensure there is equity and inclusion for all students?

Chesbrough would begin by asking for a curriculum, check the student-to-staff ratios and make sure the needs of all students are being met. Ideally, Russo would be in the schools once a season, making sure to visit DLC (Developmental Learning Center) classrooms. If he wins, Russo plans to visit all the schools the first eight days after the election, and would like to see all children engaged in learning.

Having spent time in the schools for the PAC, Biagioni-Smith went a different route. She would check for optional seating, and a quiet space in the classroom. She would also look to see the way a classroom is set up, how many posters, how colorful because that can be distracting to some kids.

Q: Special education students often struggle with making connections with other students. Beyond athletics, what activities or programs could be implemented to support meaningful connections and inclusion among all students?

Russo promoted the use of social groups like Best Buddies, lunch buddies, game groups and walking clubs. He also suggested partnering with non-school organizations like the library. Biagioni-Smith thinks it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, and that kids should try many activities to find what they like. She recalled a program she participated in as a child where kids were given a problem to solve and had to learn to work together. She would like to see something similar here. Chesbrough would also like to see Best Buddies in our schools, and thinks after-school activities are a good way to make connections.

Q: A population that is often overlooked is out 18-22-year-old students. What do you know about this population already and what would you do to learn more so that you can make informed decisions regarding policies and funding?

Biagioni-Smith learned about this program while being a Best Buddy. She met with Pelletier to get additional information because it is difficult to fund information online; he shared with her that they are in the process of revamping the website. Chesbrough knew that students are currently learning life skills in the town’s LEAP program. She would like to visit the classes and speak to students, staff and parents and research what other districts are doing. Russo also spoke with Pelletier about the LEAP program since he also struggled to find adequate information online. He would want to ensure that staff was getting appropriate professional development and work with administration to make sure the program was fully funded.

Q: In regards to evaluating the new superintendent, what kind of evidence will you look for to ensure that the new superintendent supports the diversity and inclusion of all students in Tewksbury public schools?

Chesbrough believes we need to look at the candidates’ past experiences and what their track records reveal. She’d like someone with new, fresh ideas who would host diverse speakers, including those with disabilities. Russo wants someone with a proven track record with the whole special education spectrum who is willing to adapt; a strong communicator whom he plans to hold accountable. Biagioni-Smith is looking for for someone with a stellar track record who has strategic goals and can hit the ground running. They also need to have a vested interest in getting to know the whole community.

Q: As a School Committee member you’re going to have your ideas, thoughts and actions criticized. It’s then nature of being a public figure, so you need to be able to deal with constructive feedback well. Tell us about a time when someone gave you a criticism that helped you grow as a person.

Open to feedback, Russo, worked to change the Tewksbury Teacher’s Association POV of him by addressing their concerns. He wanted to start their work together with a great rapport, and ultimately was endorsed by them. In her job, Biagioni-Smith, works with domestic and international staff, specifically in the Philippines. She had received a positive assessment from the US staff the international staff were unhappy about how meetings were being run; they wished to slow the pace down and not jump right into the business of the meeting. She changed the format of the meetings, spending 5 minutes at the beginning with staff chatting and getting to know each other, and it created a whole new dynamic with the overseas staff. Chesbrough has learned better how to disagree with people and that not everyone is going to like her through running a private Facebook group. She now has a better understanding of the difference between constructive criticism and bullying.

Q: Massachusetts Department of Education regulations state that “The parent advisory council duties shall include but not be limited to: advising the school committee on matters that pertain to the education and safety of students with disabilities; meeting regularly with school officials to participate in the planning, development, and evaluation of the school committee’s special education programs” The TSEPAC would like to be active members of task forces and search committees, to fulfill our role as an “advisory council.” What would you do to ensure the TSEPAC voice is heard and respected in important decisions?

Biagioni-Smith would not take this job lightly, and would want the TSEPAC reporting to the School Committee. She envisions a proactive relationship, where the School Committee reaches out to the TSEPAC when committees are being formed and everyone has a place at the table. She was pleased when TSEPAC co-chair Dina Mancini asked the School Committee that a TSEPAC member be placed on the Superintendent search committee. [The TSEPAC notes that while a special education parent was appointed to the search committee, that individual is not an active member of the TSEPAC]

Chesbrough believes that an active TSEPAC member should be assigned to any committees formed. She also would make sure that any laws were being followed. Russo wants a good rapport with the TSEPAC and to make sure things are always equitable. He’d like to see the TSEPAC present at School Committee meetings twice a year to give updates on what programs they have upcoming and how they feel the previous programs were run. He’s seen there is a lot of animosity and wants to be part of the solution, with a healthy dialog on both sides.

Q: You have all answered questions about school safety, in terms of keeping intruders out of the buildings. However, a more common issue in our schools is keeping students safe inside the classrooms. Students with disabilities have experienced issues with elopement, and some students have been physically restrained. Please comment on a specific school committee policy that relates to student safety. Is the policy clear and adequate in meeting student safety needs? Why or why not?

Chesbrough believes no student should be physically restrained unless the situation is life threatening. The current policy states that restraints can be used in an emergency situation, and Chesbrough wants that language to be more clear. She would like to see a room or space where situations can be de-escalated and says staff should have up-to-date training. Russo says recent amendments to the restraint language puts the district more in line with DESE guidelines. He does note that policy is a little gray in areas and could be more clear about what is allowed, and any changes should be covered under staff training. He is curious to see how aides are currently trained in restraints.

Biagioni-Smith noted it is common for children with autism and social emotional disorders to wander, and shared that her own child was once restrained in school. She received a report that included terms she had never heard and would like to make the information shared easier for parents to digest. She would like a superintendent who takes charge of the safety program and keeps staff updated and parents informed.

The TSEPAC shared that their next meeting is April 28. It will be a hybrid meeting, details to come. They also have socials coming up. The ask that you like their business Facebook page and their “Friends of” Facebook page to keep up to date. You can also join their mailing list by sending an email to tewksburysepac@gmail.com

The Tewksbury Carnation would like to thank the TSEPAC for providing a copy of their questions for accuracy.

Julie Naughton
Julie Naughton

Julie likes coffee and covers education and all things concerning the Tewksbury Public Schools for the Carnation.
Contact her at:
editor@tewksburycarnation.org, attn Julie N.

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