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Teachers union, city reach agreement on special needs students

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Teachers union, city reach agreement on special needs students
Mayor Michelle Wu and Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang announce an agreement on a BTU contract at the American Federation of Teachers convention. BANNER PHOTO

Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang and Mayor Michelle Wu announced last week that they have reached an agreement on the union’s contract that will increase the number of so-called inclusion classrooms — regular-education classrooms in which special needs students are taught alongside other students.

The announcement, made during the American Federation of Teachers’ national gathering at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center Thursday, comes after several years of advocacy by BTU members who launched an “Inclusion Done Right” campaign to advocate for more resources for inclusion classrooms.

Tang told reporters the new contract will make the district more responsive to the needs of the students it serves.

“It really is laying the groundwork and paving a path for how we ensure all of our students get what they need, whether it comes to special education, English language learners, whether it has to do with facilities, and so much more,” she said.

The three-year contract, which has yet to be signed, will also include 2.5% wage increases each year and, for the first time, 12 weeks of parental leave. BPS was the only city department that did not offer paid parental leave.

“We’re the biggest union in the city and we’re majority women,” said Boston Latin Academy history teacher Jose Valenzuela, who serves on the BTU’s contract negotiation team. “That we won this is a huge landmark.”

The provisions for special needs students also represent a hard-fought victory for the union, which has sought increased resources for such students in recent years.

Mayor Michelle Wu speaks to reporters, joined by School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson and Boston Teachers Union President
Jessica Tang. BANNER PHOTO

Federal regulations developed in the 1970s mandated that students with disabilities be given equal access to the education services that students without disabilities receive. However, the federal government has never provided more than 17% of the cost of educating special-needs students, according to AFT President Randi Weingarten.

“Whether it is a physical or emotional disability, you’re going to need more personnel,” she said, speaking during an appearance at a BTU event Wednesday. “It’s been like robbing Peter to pay Paul in a school district. You need additional personnel in the general education classroom to do inclusion. One general education teacher can’t do it all.”

Until now, inclusion classrooms in Boston most often were just that — a single teacher with dual certifications in special education and/or English as a second language managing a class with both regular-education students and those with special needs. Teachers complained that it was virtually impossible to meet the at-times divergent needs of multiple populations in a single classroom.

Many Boston schools have high concentrations of English language learners or students with disabilities. At Charlestown High, for instance, 31% of students have learning disabilities and 36% are English language learners. Because such students perform poorly in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, the state considers the school to be “underperforming.”

State guidelines call for students with disabilities and English language learners to be educated in “the least restrictive environment,” meaning in classrooms with general education students. However, because many special needs students and English language learners need individual help in such classrooms, often requiring a second teacher and a paraprofessional instructor, operating those less restrictive classrooms requires that school districts commit more funding for the additional staff.

Yet the state has offered no additional funding to the BPS for its increased special education and English language learner needs. In its most recent review of the district, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found, among other things, that BPS has concentrated too many of its special needs students in substantially separate classrooms.

Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey Riley in June threatened to label the BPS district “underperforming,” a move that would leave the door open to a state takeover of the schools. City officials and Riley entered into an agreement under which district officials would remedy issues including the high number of students in substantially separate classrooms, although the state has committed just $10 million for improvements at BPS, less than a percentage point of the district’s $1.3 billion budget.

Wu said the city is prepared to invest the additional resources that will be needed.

“We are prepared to make a very substantial investment for the implementation of particularly the special education part of this contract, and that will come before the School Committee … likely in the fall,” she said, speaking at a press conference held at the AFT convention.

The BTU’s Inclusion Done Right campaign called for no more than 20 students in a classroom, with no more than five special needs students. Such a classroom would have a general education teacher as well as a special education teacher and a paraprofessional.

The agreement BTU officials reached with the Wu administration has dispensed with those specific requirements for inclusion classrooms and instead created a provision for inclusion planning teams in every school. The teams will make classroom staffing recommendations to school site councils or, in the case of pilot schools, governing boards.

Wu said the approach agreed upon in the soon-to-be finalized contract will allow greater flexibility than a one-size-fits-all approach.

“We need parameters, and we need baselines and frameworks, but our educators have been telling us that the experience has to be tailored and targeted with supports for each classroom for each child,” she told reporters. “Opening this up to a way that can really incorporate that range of what the needs are, and the ability for targeted resources to go to support classroom-by-classroom or student-by-student, is really what we are working towards with this new agreement.”

BTU’s Valenzuela said the city’s commitment to funding inclusion classrooms is long overdue.

“We’ve tackled what has been the elephant in the room for decades — how to give students with special needs the education they deserve,” he said.

In past years, Valenzuela said, BTU members, parents and English language learner and special education advocates have sought unsuccessfully to hold the district accountable for complying with state and federal mandates around providing adequate services for special needs students.

“It’s always been the rub with this district,” he said. “Whenever a school has a model that costs more money, the district has balked.”

While Wu has given no firm dollar amount on what the city is willing to invest, Valenzuela said he’s confident the city will adequately fund inclusion classrooms.

“We are looking at this new agreement as rebuilding trust,” he said.