School committee plans to restructure Side-by-Side program

On April 28, the Williamstown School Committee met to discuss its 2017 fiscal budget, which includes a measure to cut aspects of Williamstown Elementary School’s (WES) preschool program. Four members of the committee actively expressed their support of the budget proposal.

The new budget would remove the school’s full-day option for Side-by-Side, its pre-kindergarten program. Side-by-Side, created in 1989, educates preschool-aged children with disabilities inclusively, alongside their typically developing peers. Side-by-Side grew over time, eventually including a full-day program to accommodate the rising enrollment needs of children with disabilities. Although the program ideally would have a 1:1 ratio of students with special needs to their peers, today the ratio is closer to 1:4.5.

This year, Superintendent Douglas Dias, along with Director of Pupil Personnel Services Kimberley Grady, determined that Side-by-Side’s full-day program could be reduced to two half-day sessions at no detriment to the integrity of the program itself. In the past, Side-by-Side has provided half-day and full-day classes for both special needs and non-special needs children. Dias and Grady maintained that the two half-day sessions would continue to fulfill the needs of the special education population. Nevertheless, many teachers, parents and other community members have demanded the restoration of the full-day option.

Dias had previously explained that the decision to eliminate Side-by-Side’s full-day classes was due to financial concerns. At the meeting on April 28, he stated that it was more accurately a matter of assessing Side-by-Side’s place in the school’s wider educational program.

“My first concern has always been for the students in this building. And I know this change is drastic, but that’s part of my job,” Dias told iBerkshires.“Part of my job is to shine light into corners that sometimes we don’t want to look at and to make recommendations … and make decisions that are not popular. I didn’t get into this career to be popular. I got into this job to help our kids get the best education possible, and they will.”

Many committee members expressed their agreement with Dias as well as their confidence that he was dedicated to acting in the school’s best interests.

“If changing the structure of Side-by-Side would have a detrimental effect on the long-term achievement of children with special needs, that would completely undermine much of the other work being done at this school,” committee member Catherine Keating told iBerkshires. “I don’t think the administration of this school would do anything to undermine all this work.”

Still, there are members of the community who disagree with the proposed budget changes. During the public comment portion of the meeting, veteran preschool teacher Fern Murtagh spoke. Murtagh contended that two half-day sessions could not replace the impact of the full-day preschool sessions for the children who need them most.

“When I think about the prospect of the full-day Side-by-Side being eliminated, I don’t think of the program,” Murtagh told iBerkshires. “I see the faces of my individual children with [individual education programs] who are in my class and the faces of their parents who sat with me at team meetings not even a year ago, where we decided a cohesive full-day program was what their children needed.”

On Friday, WES officials announced that they intend to add a third half-day section to Side-by-Side. According to Dias, a commitment to finding a place for all of the children who applied for the program motivated officials to include the extra section.

“It came out of us doing a lottery at the beginning of the week, and we saw a handful of kids didn’t make it in the lottery,” Dias told iBerkshires “We said, ‘What can we do to make this happen?’”

WES officials also argued that, as it stands, Side-by-Side has produced unequal educational opportunities for its students. The school uses enrollment fees for its general education students to finance the program, while special needs children attend free of charge. To rectify the imbalance, Dias seeks to implement a new policy, under which students who qualify for half-priced school lunches also qualify for half-priced tuition, and students who qualify for free school lunches also qualify for free tuition.

In March, Dias met with parents to discuss the budget changes that WES would be facing, including two teachers, four paraprofessionals and several enrichment programs in addition to Side-by-Side.

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