Special Ed Focus of Second ACPS Board Forum

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Candidates tackle community questions and concerns

When it comes to the state of special education in Alexandrias public schools, it looks like all of the candidates running for school board this year can agree that two things are necessary: improvement and accountability.

With special education the main topic on nearly everyones mind from concerned taxpayers to parents already deeply invested in the system the event, hosted by the Special Education Advisory Committee, was an exercise in two-way education.

In the traditional sense, the community learned a bit about the candidates, but, in contrast to forums of differing styles and subject matter, those running for city office, admittedly, spent much of the forum learning about the communitys plight as well.

There was varying degrees of depth, some knew a lot more than others, said Stephanie Stevenson, a T.C. Williams parent who has seen the ways in which the system has worked and not worked. I am hopeful and I want to believe and I want to be supportive of the direction theyre trying to go, but I am guardedly optimistic.

After holding the first such forum during the last full election cycle three years ago, the Special Education Advisory Committee once again organized Tuesdays event so parents could get their questions answered, said SEAC co-chair Sandra Strachan-Vieira.

The committee serves as a volunteer group, outside of the school system, that advises the school board in regards to education as mandated by federal law.

The last time we held a candidates forum, three years ago, I think its fair to say that parents expressed a great deal of dissatisfaction with special education programs in Alexandria, moderator John Freedman said. There was a view that there was poor leadership on special education issues in Alexandria, very poor academic performance, and very low expectations for special needs students.
Much has happened in the three years since the initial SEAC forum, but all candidates agreed more can and must be done.

In that span, there has been marked turnover in the superintendents office resulting in the hiring of Morton Sherman who most noted was a breath of fresh air last summer and the addition of Michael Romanelli, executive director of Student Services, to the superintendents executive staff.
Another addition has been that of a compliance officer for the schools, a response to the letter detailing the school systems non-compliance with certain state and federal guidelines the letter served as a main talking point throughout the night in referring to the need for improvement.

Another part of the improvement effort, several candidates suggested, is the need for a paradigm shift in the way special education is looked at within schools and the city as a whole.

Some of the incumbent school board members also noted a change has already begun, with the transformation in language that has occurred during Shermans tenure, like changing the term at-risk to at-promise students, placing a premium on potential rather than obstacles.

Though every candidate at some point mentioned the need for improvements and a higher degree of accountability at all levels of the school system, incumbent Scott Newsham (District A) made clear that, in the chain of command, the superintendent is the sole person the board can hold directly accountable and that it is on Sherman to hold principals accountable for results, as it is the principals job to monitor their teachers.

Ten of the 12 candidates running for office across the citys three voting districts participated in Tuesdays public forum, the second of the election cycle, at the Minnie Howard campus of T.C. Williams. Incumbent Blanche Maness (District C) and Janice Howard (District B) were unable to attend.
All of the candidates, I think, are sincere in their desire to serve, but I would say that they dont have the depth that is needed to pursue change, Stevenson said. I agree that progress has been made, that the current members have grown, but I would challenge all of them, based on what theyve heard, to really think about what it all means.

Stevenson said that she would have liked to gain a better sense of each candidates personality and agenda from the forum, but realized that there are a handful of other forums yet to occur between now and the May 5 election.

The special education question and of how services are delivered is just one aspect of what [the candidates] have to do, Stevenson said. Hopefully more will be done at the other forums to demonstrate their individual styles and what skills they bring to the board particularly the new ones, I dont know what skills they bring to the board.

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