The transition from elementary school to middle school isn’t easy.
Students go from all core classes with one teacher, to a teacher for each class. They receive individualized class schedules, and in some schools, even lockers. Their elementary school is one of several funneling into one middle school and while this brings new friends, it also brings unfamiliar faces—not to mention a new and much larger building.
For students with special education needs, this transition can be even more difficult. There’s a heightened standard of independence and maturity for the incoming 11-year-olds, one that some Arlington parents said requires greater recognition because special education students can’t necessarily adapt with as much fluidity.
Administrators and staff said they are aware of the challenges and have recently put even more emphasis on the transition period into than in previous years.
The sixth grade middle school special education teachers are meeting more with the fifth grade elementary teachers, particularly as the inclusion model—a co-taught program between a special ed teacher and regular teacher at Peirce Elementary School—enters the middle school in a similar program. In May, Ottoson hosted an information night for parents to meet the special education teachers, along with a breakfast for all parents of incoming middle school students.
Meeting with parents and ensuring a smooth transition
Ottoson Principal Tim Ruggere said he has also met individually with several parents about ensuring their children’s individualized education plans will be met. His children are also on IEPs, so he said it’s something that affects him personally.
“I think it’s just fear of the unknown,” Ruggere said sitting at a circular table in his second-floor office at the middle school. “They’re used to dealing with a smaller school.”
But from meetings—particularly a —Ruggere has gathered that one of parents’ major concerns is the transition. He said this is a priority and focus among his staff for both the special education students and incoming sixth graders as a whole.
“I always welcome parents in any time,” he said. “I do care about these students. I do care about this town. And I want to make this the best middle school that it can possibly be. So I want people to know that, and to feel they can come to me with any problem question or concern they do have.”
There are about 200 out of 1,100 students on IEPs at Ottoson, according to Bodie. The special education programs include supported learning centers that address three specific issues: autism, emotional and social, and cognitive. There is an academic-supported program, where students attend regular classes but receive extra support outside the classroom, along with a language-based program and the inclusion program starting next year.
Concerns about lack of formal program descriptions and parent involvement
Parents, however, have expressed concern that there are no formal, detailed descriptions of each of these programs presenting problems for parents, who aren’t fully informed of their student’s particular program and curriculum, said Trish Orlovsky, chair of the Arlington Special Education Parenting and Advisory Council.
“I agree with that, we’re working on that,” Bodie said, adding that special education websites also need a lot of work.
In referencing larger concerns throughout the district, cited at meetings about the special education department, Orlovsky said there is still not nearly enough parental involvement in programming decisions. She said often district administrators make decisions unilaterally, rather than collaboratively with staff and IEP teams.
“We should really be at the table for a lot of the discussions,” Orlovsky said. “[We’re] standing outside the door knocking and knocking . . . please just let us inside.”
Past special ed problems at Ottoson
Orlovsky and Linda Katz, a parent of a special education student who now goes out of district for high school at Landmark, which specializes in language-based learning disabilities, both cited an instance two years ago. The Ottoson language-based program was temporarily cut and students were put into mainstream classrooms, despite their IEPs stating language-based classrooms were needed.
Her daughter was in a language-based program for sixth grade, but then the program was almost fully dismantled by her seventh grade year, Katz said.
“The school year started and [my daughter] informed me that she was mainstreamed for math—which that was so completely, shockingly, illegal,” Katz said. “If it’s on her IEP, that’s what she’s required to get.”
The district must provide the services agreed upon in the IEP, according to federal and state special education requirements. She said her daughter’s Massachusetts standardized test scores plummeted, from just below the Advanced range, to Needs Improvement. She said it was an extremely tough year.
“My kid is now at Landmark, and I’m very happy because she needs a language-based program,” Katz said. “And she’s getting it.”
Bodie said that programming change was an attempt to allow students to be part of mainstream classes and receive instruction from teachers specializing in the subjects. She said some students “flourished,” while for others it was much more difficult, so they re-adjusted the programs.
She said she hopes the inclusion program will help address these issues and allow some students to be more involved in regular classes at an earlier age.
“We learned from that, and I think that was one of the lessons from that experience,” she said.