Survey: Wilton parents mostly satisfied with special education program during pandemic

Photo of J.D. Freda
Andrea Leonardi, assistant superintendent, presented the results of a survey conducted for parents and guardians of children with special needs at an online Board of Education meeting last month.

Andrea Leonardi, assistant superintendent, presented the results of a survey conducted for parents and guardians of children with special needs at an online Board of Education meeting last month.

Jarret Liotta / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — A survey of nearly half of the parents and guardians of children with special needs generated mostly positive responses about how the district has handled the program during the pandemic, but concerns were also raised about some of the struggles these families have faced.

During a Board of Education meeting last month, Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Andrea Leonardi said students with special needs were divided into two groups for the study: Those with Individualized Educational Plans and those enrolled in the program upheld by Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, known as “504 students” in the survey.

Section 504 is “designed to help parents of students with physical or mental impairments in public schools, or publicly-funded private schools, work with educators to design customized educational plans and these 504 plans legally ensure that students will be treated fairly at school,” according to Connecticut Children’s, a nonprofit children-focused healthcare system.

Just under half of the district’s parents or guardians of students with IEPs responded to the survey, and around 40 percent of those with Section 504 students responded, Leonardi said.

“Our goal was to ask the parents of students with disabilities, who are being served either under Section 504 or an IEP, of their experience during COVID-19 in terms of communication with staff, teamwork, how their students are doing and to both provide suggestions for improvements and to also recognize silver linings and recognize any staff who had went above and beyond,” Leonardi said.

The survey focused on the breakdown of students enrolled in each program.

For each school, the questions asked how well the child’s parents and their development team are in communication, how collaborative the relationship is, how easily accessible the team is to the parents and guardians and the flexibility in coming to a unique conclusion for the child during moments of disagreement.

The questions also focused on how well the children have responded and progressed during COVID-19 learning.

The results showed an overwhelming majority of parents felt their child’s development team worked well with them to address needs of the student, were communicative with them daily, were able to come to unique resolutions when addressing parental concerns and providing visible and accurate information on the proper way to address those concerns.

Out of 129 elementary school parents who responded, there were only 12 total “disagreements” to the survey’s questions.

Out of 103 middle school parents that responded, only 11 total “disagreements” were tallied for that same criteria.

However, as ages of the children in the survey group increased, parents showed more of a likelihood to disagree with some of the previous sentiments, and were more likely to voice concerns about their child’s lack of progress toward their individual goals and objectives in the lesson plan.

For example, out of 126 high school parents who responded, there were 69 total “disagreements” and 19 “strong disagreements.”

Since the responses were anonymous, Board member Glenn Hemmerle said it’s difficult to address the situation.

“So that makes it very difficult then to reach out to understand those who disagreed or strongly disagreed in any areas, and to contact them and find out what those issues are and how we address those, right?” Hemmerle asked.

Leonardi said each child’s team knows who is struggling.

“But if you are a parent who has particular things that they want or don't feel like they are being heard, there is a chain of command to follow,” Leonardi explained, telling parents to reach out to the district for help.

A total of 24 parents of special needs children at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill schools “disagreed” and another seven “strongly disagreed” that their child was making the necessary step toward their goals and objectives.

At Middlebrook Middle School, 35 parents voiced the same concerns, with 25 disagreeing and 10 strongly disagreeing. At Wilton High School, 42 parents (13 disagree, 29 strongly disagree), exactly one-third of those who responded, said their children had not been making adequate progress.

Parents responded favorably to video conferences, like Zoom, as useful tools for them and their children to meet with staff. District officials said this form of communication could continue even after the pandemic.

“These results seem to be encouraging as we move forward to next year,” board member Deborah Low said. “We will face challenges, but starting from a very good place in this pandemic is amazing.”