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Cambridge Announces New Plan for Special Education Services, Amid Statewide Federal Inquiry

Cambridge Public Schools announced a plan to process special education students who attend schools outside the district.
Cambridge Public Schools announced a plan to process special education students who attend schools outside the district. By Joey Huang
By Sally E. Edwards and Julian J. Giordano, Crimson Staff Writers

Updated: October 6, 2023, at 5:31 p.m.

Amid a federal inquiry into the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Special Education, officials from the Cambridge Public Schools are proposing new mechanisms to best service special education students who attend schools outside the district.

The inquiry follows complaints that the state is failing to ensure that students with disabilities receive adequate support from local school districts — as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — according to a Sept. 29 letter from the U.S. Department of Education.

This comes as CPS leaders work to improve programs for students with special education needs, especially Cambridge students with Individualized Educational Plans who are enrolled in schools outside the district.

Francisco Alves — CPS interim executive director of special education — announced a new plan to process out-of-district special education students in a Wednesday night meeting of the School Committee’s Special Education and Student Supports subcommittee.

Alves said that these improvements were catalyzed by flaws in a “disjointed” system of processing out-of-district special education students, including private school and homeschool students.

The district is responsible for serving all special education students in the city, regardless of CPS enrollment status.

“We’ve had counselors who were case managers for kids in private schools that they didn’t even know, they didn’t even see,” he said. “We had psychologists who were recommending out-of-district placements that they’ve never been to, or really didn’t know too much about.”

“We haven’t done a great job — complete transparency — on homeschools,” Alves added. “I think we can do more for them.”

Kara Nies, a physical therapist for CPS, said that the current system also disadvantages students receiving special education support within the district, as they often have to miss in-class instruction for individualized support.

“Our in-house kids are missing academic time and these kids that are going to private schools are not,” she said.

Of the 1,430 Cambridge students with individualized education plans, 121 are placed in schools or residential facilities outside the district or homeschooled. Close to 90 of them attend private schools, according to Alves.

Alves also announced that the new processing system will establish a “centralized team” including individualized education program specialists, an out-of-district placement specialist, and an out-of-district psychologist.

“I think this is a very big win, it’s a big win for the teachers,” Alves said. “It’s going to create a system that is much more efficient.”

While Alves is optimistic about the new process’ reduction of teacher workloads, Cambridge Education Association president Dan Monahan raised concerns about staffing. Namely, Monahan cited the possibility of educators doing “additional work outside of their school day” to implement the plan.

“Our special educators, in particular, are pressed beyond their limits right now,” he said in an interview. “I don’t know if they will actually be able to get any of our special educators to volunteer for this pay — particularly if it’s less than what they make during the school day.”

These concerns come amidst ongoing contract negotiations between the CEA and the district, characterized by district-wide staffing shortages and educators’ complaints that they are underpaid and overworked.

Alves noted that the district currently has two unfilled psychologist positions and one unfilled vision mobility specialist position.

“There is still a critical staff shortage across the state,” Alves said.

In an emailed statement after this article was published Friday, CPS spokesperson Sujata Wycoff wrote that Cambridge Public Schools is “deeply committed to ensuring out-of-district students, students attending private schools, and students who are homeschooled are receiving high-quality supports and that their IEPs are being serviced.”

“This new model will allow our special educators, counselors, and related staff to focus on instruction and services to in-district students,” she added, noting that they will transition to the out-of-district team by the end of next week.

David J. Weinstein — a School Committee member who attended Wednesday’s subcommittee meeting — said the committee and district will prioritize both student and staff well-being moving forward.

“My priority as a School Committee member is to serve our kids, which includes ensuring that we’re supporting our educators and all of our staff,” Weinstein said.

—Staff writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached at Follow her on X @sallyedwards04 or on Threads @sally_edwards06.

—Staff writer Julian J. Giordano can be reached at Follow him on X @jjgiordano1 or on Threads @julianjgiordano.

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