Boston parent leaders say they are concerned about the departure of the top person in the special education program, a change that comes following a state audit highlighting the city’s troubled track record educating children with special needs.
Nadine Ekstrom, who served as a senior advisor in the Office of Special Education, resigned from her role leading the office for Boston Public Schools on Friday after just six months. Assistant Superintendent Ethan d’Ablemont Burnes, who had worked as the office’s director, was assigned a new role to make sure special needs students are in the classrooms best suited to their abilities.
The district said Superintendent Brenda Cassellius will be making an announcment of a new interim leader. Officials did not indicate when the announcement can be expected.
Two members of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SpEdPAC) board said they’re hearing from parents who are frustrated by the vacancy in leadership, particularly after a state audit described a special education department in disarray.
“It’s very — it’s scary, because these are children that … are basically already dealing with so many different challenges,” chairwoman Roxann Harvey said. “You know, people [parents] are trying to decipher what is going on in the system. And we’re struggling to do that.”
Boston Public Schools leaders are under intense scrutiny as state officials consider putting the district into receivership, effectively taking over the district.
An audit released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last month found that Boston Public Schools has not adequately educated its most vulnerable students and described the special education program as in “systemic disarray.”
“Leadership instability at the school committee, superintendent, and department level is endemic at BPS and continues to impede district improvement efforts and hamper support for school-level leaders and staff,” the report reads. “Rapid leadership turnover in departments serving English learners and students with disabilities, as well as operational departments, is especially concerning.”
The Office of English Language Learners has had five leaders since Cassellius took over nearly three years ago, according to the Boston Globe. The superintendent is also on her way out, leaving the district at the end of June. The district said d’Ablemont Burnes and another staffer, Lauren Viviani, will be in charge of the Special Education department until an interim director is named.
The state report criticized the district leadership’s “lack of urgency in improving special education services” and absence of well-understood policies and procedures. It also cited specific concerns around the way the schools disproportionately place Black and brown students in separate classrooms instead of placing them into the least restrictive learning environments possible. Fixes did not seem to be a priority, the report noted, saying that in the past two years, special education has only appeared on the Boston School Committee’s agenda once.
“Frustration on the part of families, advocates, and community members has reached a breaking point,” the audit said.
Charlie Kim, who is the treasurer of SpEdPAC and the parent of a special needs student, said the office is backlogged and parents with questions might not be getting timely answers about their child’s educational planning. Kim says Ekstrom came to the district just six months ago to continue d’Ablemont Burnes’ work to create a strategic plan for special education, but that effort has been halted as the district waits for a new superintendent.
“The management is chaotic, the leadership is chaotic,” Kim said.
Parents have been asking for a strategic plan for two to three years, Kim said, hoping it will help bring order to the office and guide funding decisions. According to Kim, parents have also been asking for the creation of a policy handbook to help parents and guardians of special education students know what to expect.
He further questioned why the district has not addressed backlogs in student evaluations and services, like meetings on individualized education plans for special needs students.
“There’s definitively a leadership issue,” Kim said. “Parents are correct when they say there’s urgency around it … We’ve been calling for this year after year.”
Kim and Harvey said they agree with the state’s analysis of the special education system in disarray, findings they say are not new. Both said that SpEdPAC has no plans to take a stance on receivership.