SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — As a short-term response to managing students’ disruptive behavior at Union Street Elementary School, the Springfield School District will restore two behavioral intervention assistant positions that the district cut last year.
At the Springfield School Board meeting on Monday, parents shared concerns to the board about Union Street’s ongoing problems with student behaviors in the school, both on the playground and in the classrooms.
“It’s a safety issue there all day, not just at recess,” said Springfield parent Kelly Dufrane.
Dufrane said that while many community members blame former principal Philip Trejo for exacerbating the school climate, the student behaviors were there before Trejo and remain problematic nearly two weeks after his resignation.
Interim Principal at Union Street David Cohn said that the volume of student referrals to his office is “overwhelming.”
“I will finish one meeting with a parent or student, and open the door to see three students who have been sent out of their classrooms,” Cohn told the board. “This is not sustainable at all.”
Since Trejo stepped down as principal on Sept. 26, Cohn and Dean of Students Elizabeth Murphy have taken over leadership at Union Street, which serves Springfield students in grades three through five. Though Murphy is the primary administrator for disciplinary issues, the volume of referrals is so high that Cohn must see students as well.
Though the problems at Union Street are “layered,” said Superintendent Zach McLaughlin, one problem may be the district’s decision last year to reduce staff positions in the school’s intervention and classroom reentry program.
At the beginning of last school year, Union Street had a team of one lead teacher and three instructional assistants who provided student support to students whose disruptive behaviors or socio-emotional issues required removal from the classroom. Typically, in these support rooms, the staff helps the student process what happened and the root causes, then develop a plan to return to class. In some cases, a student might need an alternative space to do classwork productively.
According to McLaughlin, Trejo thought the team might work better in two groups. The lead teacher and one instructional assistant were moved to run an alternative classroom that served four students who seemed to do better in a self-contained setting. When the district sought to hire a dean of students, Trejo supported Union cutting the other instructional assistant positions to defray some cost of the dean position, saying that the Dean of Students could effectively handle student referrals.
McLaughlin said that because the district acquired grant funding to pay for the dean of students position this year, the district can hire two instructional assistants to provide intervention and student support without additional cost to the taxpayers.
While addressing the problems at Union Street will require multiple, long-term strategies, restoring these positions is an important step in the short term, McLaughlin said.
“[The fix] is not as easy as adding these two positions,” McLaughlin said. “It will be about training the staff to operate as a unit, and about their philosophy.”
Though the school might benefit through hiring a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) or additional teaching staff, McLaughlin said he had to consider the district’s budget and candidates available at this time of year.
“I’d rather build around what I know I can put in place,” McLaughlin said.
School board Chair Mike Griffin said that the community needs to consider making additional investments if that outcome means improving the learning environment for the other students. School districts will sometimes send students to out-of-district schools that specialize in therapeutic services, though these schools can cost up to $100,000 a year per student. The state is looking to shift more of these out-of-district costs to local districts. Griffin said that maybe paying those tuitions might be necessary in some cases, but he would also consider hiring a specialized staff person who could work with multiple students to reduce the need for costly out-of-district placements.
Griffin also encouraged families at Union Street to continue sharing their insight with the school board.
“We want to know what’s going on from all levels and points of view,” Griffin said. “And we’re going to do whatever it takes, because this is unacceptable and it will not be tolerated. We need to get all hands on deck.”