Student Voices

Special Education in the Greenwich Public School District: A Program Like No Other

|December 1, 2020

    For many students, transitioning schools is not too challenging, besides perhaps having to make new friends and meet new teachers. But for students - and parents of students - with intellectual, physical, emotional, or learning disabilities, this transition may be difficult.  There are many factors to consider, and one of the first is ascertaining what programs are available to meet the needs of special needs pupils, among other considerations. In the Greenwich Public School (GPS) district, there are a variety of offered programs and opportunities that provide special education students with the tools they need to succeed.

    ​​​​​​​To get an inside peek at what special education and services look like in the Greenwich Public Schools district, we spoke with Ms. Mary Forde, the Chief Pupil Personnel Services Officer for Greenwich. Ms. Forde oversees all of the district’s special education programs and services. In addition to specialized instruction and academic offerings for students, services include physical, occupational, and speech therapy, as well as access to social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, and nurses. Ms. Forde provided a great deal of information on special education in Greenwich and helped us gain an understanding of the program. We thank her for her insight which was very helpful in creating this article. 

    Referral/Evaluation Process:

    While often a complicated process from a legislative standpoint, the Greenwich Public School System strives to make the referral and evaluation process as easy, understandable, and timely as possible. A parent or teacher can make a referral for evaluation if they suspect a student has a disability and may need special education services. After this request, an initial Planning and Placement Team meets with parents and staff to discuss why they believe the student may need individualized services. Often, various interventions, like a behavior plan, are employed before determining whether or not the student has a disability and will require a long term, specialized plan to meet the child’s needs. Either directly proceeding the meeting or at the conclusion of the intervention, the team determines if it remedied the concerns or decides to proceed with a full evaluation process. 

    The evaluation is completed under the guidelines of the State of Connecticut to determine if the student qualifies for a specific category of disability. In the Greenwich Public School System, this is generally done by the district-wide evaluation team of experienced professionals. A second  meeting is held to discuss the evaluation results. If the student qualifies for special education services, the process to implement an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, begins. This federally designed, state-implemented document is created to help ensure each child receives a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) with utmost inclusion.

     If the student does not qualify for special education services with an IEP, other supports or services may be available to help a student achieve success. For example, a 504 Plan can provide accommodations for students with disabilities who don’t qualify for special education. Accommodations are based on the nature of the student’s needs, if determined necessary; some examples include but are certainly not limited to: extended time on assignments, sensory breaks, or modifications to work.

    In-School Benefits

    Beginning all the way at the preschool level, special education students can experience an inclusive and quality education. Having a preschool program that recognizes students with disabilities and integrates them with peers without disabilities is a hallmark of the Greenwich Public School system. The model of each class combines approximately 6 students with disabilities with approximately 9 students without disabilities. Students without disabilities are selected by lottery. The preschool programs are located at Hamilton Avenue, New Lebanon, North Street, and Old Greenwich elementary schools, but students from anywhere in town have the opportunity to attend. Even at the preschool level, students are set up on a path in education in a classroom environment built on unification and acceptance of others' differences. 

    Each school in the district across all classroom levels is equipped with special education teachers and professional assistants (also known as paras) based on student need. The number of special education teachers and assistants assigned to each  school depend upon the number of special education students in that school. Additionally, each school has a minimum of one speech and language pathologists and one psychologist, vital support systems for some students. The school system also provides access to occupational therapists for students who need support in various areas of fine motor needs and activities of daily living, in addition to physical therapists who support gross motor needs in terms of motor development, functional mobility, and other activities of daily living and assistive technology services. Hearing support is provided by the district’s teacher of the hearing impaired; likewise, vision support is provided by the district’s teacher of the visually impaired. Generally, the hearing and vision support teachers go to the schools their assigned students attend to provide services, ensuring that students can remain in their address-based home schools. 

    At Greenwich High School, there are a wide variety of classes available to support students of varying needs. As with the elementary and middle school levels, the courses that each child takes are directly determined by their IEP. These classes support students academically, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally as designated in a student’s IEP. Some programs the district offers include:

    • Academic Lab which generally assists students who have been identified as having mild to moderate disabilities by providing various academic support services from teaching executive functioning skills to academic skill instruction to collaboration with the student’s other teachers. 
    • Strategic Social Academic Lab which consists of a support system for students with higher level social skills and behavioral needs so that students can access the general education curriculum with personalized modifications and accommodations. 
    • Activities of Daily Living class, taken in conjunction with Functional Math, which teaches life skills to help students establish independence. Community-based learning plays a large role in this course. Some topics addressed include food preparation, clothing, vocational preparation, transportation, and health and safety. 
    • Functional Math classes provide other important skills for independence in the community. Some topics that are addressed include money and budgeting, time, calendars, shopping, paychecks, and banking.

     In addition to these programs, there are a plethora of courses providing individualized instruction in reading, math, and more all based on the student’s IEP. Students often take some classes alongside peers in general education classes, depending on the individual’s academic needs - with any required support in place, of course. 

    Another unique aspect of Greenwich High School is its Education and Wellness Center, which provides integral mental health, academic, behavioral, and social-emotional supports to create a successful learning experience by helping students meet graduation requirements and putting them on the path to success. 

    Eligible students of all ages can also attend Extended School Year over the summer to enrich their educational experiences; with this there are many opportunities for socialization and inclusion. For students whose IEPs indicate that they are eligible, there is a program for students ages 18-22 years old. This program, called Community Connections, is primarily based at worksites in the community, allowing students to develop important job skills as they transition to adulthood. It also focuses on volunteer activities, leisure activities, and crucial life skills. 

    Inclusive Extracurriculars

    To foster an inclusive atmosphere, there are a variety of extracurricular activities that include students with and without disabilities. As a testament to the exceptional extracurriculars, the Greenwich High School has a nationally-recognized Unified Sports program. Acknowledged by Special Olympics as a Unified Champion School for the past two years, the team at GHS brings together participants with and without disabilities to play soccer, basketball, and run track and field, sometimes competing in local tournaments. The inclusive environment allows everyone to thrive, form friendships, and win the occasional medal. There are also clubs at GHS that promote inclusion through social activities like arts and crafts or by meeting during lunch. At Western Middle School, there is also a Unified Sports program. As a member of several of these programs, I can speak to the value of these fun, inclusive atmospheres for the students involved. With similar principles and activities, students come together in all of these activities as valued members of a community.

    Distance Learning

    Distance learning is a new educational experience for everyone, and is certainly challenging for all students. However, schools and the special education department are working diligently to provide an equally as quality education for students, by providing imperative specialized instruction and inclusion with peers. For more information on how they have been handling these unprecedented times, visit the “Distance Learning: Special Education” tab under “Teaching and Learning” on the Greenwich Public Schools website.

    How To Get More Information 

    We hope this article provided some clarity on the special education programs and services within the Greenwich Public School system. We would like to express our gratitude for Ms. Forde for meeting with us on this important topic. If you have any further questions, the Greenwich Public Schools website is a great place to learn more about the special education program, linked here. It also includes the contacts for staff members that could certainly help with any questions or concerns you might have. 

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