ROCKVILLE —The Education and Culture Committee of the Montgomery County Council met on July 8 to be briefed on the status of special education in county schools.
Councilmember Craig Rice, who also serves as the chair of the Education and Culture Committee, began the meeting by noting that Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is doing a good job educating our young people, but there is also always room for improvement.
“We need to be proud of the fact that we do really, really well,’”he said. “But at the same time we need to acknowledge the ways in which we can get better, and so, that is what this work session is about to talk about what it is we’re continuing to do and how we can continue to reach even more of our kids and make sure they’re living up to their fullest potential.”
He also noted MCPS and the rest of the school jurisdictions in Maryland have not been receiving sufficient funding over the years from the state.
“We have never received the proper amount of funding from the state that we should have to ensure that these kids are having the futures we aspire to provide,” Rice said. “So, what Montgomery County Public Schools and many other school systems throughout the state have done is repurposed money where the state has not put forward that funding. I want to be very clear that the current funding, while yes, it is additional, is just getting us closer to what we should have all along.”
MCPS officials put together a presentation to give the committee members an overview of issues such as staffing, assessment and parental engagement.
Kevin Lowndes serves MCPS as associate superintendent. He explained the difficulty MCPS is having in securing adequate staffing for special education programs.
“We’re giving out the positions (for special education teachers), but we’re having a difficult time finding the bodies to fill those positions,” he said. “We have allocated for the positions, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to find an actual body to put in that classroom and so students end up having a long-term substitute for the classroom.”
Lowndes said that MCPS is working with an offsite human resources department to recruit more special education teachers to work for the district. In response to a question posed by Councilmember Will Jawando, Lowndes clarified that there are 90 positions open for special education teachers district-wide.
“We are already in a deficit going into the year, and we weren’t able to hire all of our special education teachers last year,” Lowndes explained. “There just isn’t a lot of college graduates coming out with that type of experience and are comfortable in order to teach in a special education environment. We’re talking to University of Maryland and some of these other schools to figure out if there is anything we can do to partner with us to have more people come out and be prepared to teach some of these programs.”
There is a race between MCPS and other local county school districts, such as Fairfax County and Prince George’s County, to get special education teachers into their districts, according to Lowndes.
County Council President Nancy Navarro also serves on the Education and Culture Committee. She noted the importance of being intentional in searching for special educators.
“It’s not hoping that you know colleges would produce special education teachers but maybe working together with institutions to allocate funding to partner with University of Shady Grove in order to (produce people to fill these positions),” Navarro said.
Another issue that was discussed at the briefing was assessing students for special needs.
Phil Lynch, director of the Department of Special Education Services, noted that students with special needs often fall behind their peers simply because they are not assessed early.
“Oftentimes students are identified (as having special needs) around that second or third grade level. So, they’re coming in with that deficit, and then it’s our goal to get them up to grade level,” Lynch said.
Rice suggested working toward earlier assessments so that students who need accommodations do not fall so far behind.
Finally, the committee discussed the ways in which MCPS and special education teachers could engage with parents and families of students with special needs.
Navarro noted that in a very diverse county like this one, engaging with parents can have the extra layer of cultural and language barriers.
“It’s no secret that the special education arena is very stressful and very complicated, and for a parent it adds an extra layer of concern just from the stress of trying to understand,” Navarro said. “And, of course, there’s an added layer when you have issues of cultural competency or language barriers, which make it even more daunting.”
Lowndes said that in the last year, MCPS has offered parent nights in three of the different sections of the county – upcounty, downcounty and mid county. The parent nights aimed to explain the process of special education, testing and other information for families going through the process for the first time.
There are also breakout sessions for families that need more information about steps they may need to take later in the special education process.
The next Education and Culture Committee meeting will be held July 22.