Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang and Mayor Michelle Wu announced this morning that they have reached an agreement on the union’s contract that will increase the number of so-called inclusion classrooms – teaching classrooms mainstream in which students with special needs are taught.
The announcement, made at the American Federation of Teachers’ national rally at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on Thursday, comes after years of advocacy by BTU members who launched an “Inclusion Done Right” campaign to advocate for more resources for inclusive classrooms.
Tang told reporters the new contract will make the district more responsive to the needs of the students it serves.
“It’s really about laying the groundwork and paving the way for how we make sure all of our students get what they need, whether it’s special education, English learners , whether it has to do with facilities, and so much more,” she said. said.
The three-year contract, which has not yet been signed, will also include salary increases of 2.5% each year and, for the first time, 12 weeks of parental leave. The BPS was the only city department that did not offer paid parental leave.
“We’re the biggest union in the city and we’re mostly women,” said Jose Valenzuela, a history professor at Boston Latin Academy who is on the BTU contract-negotiating team. “The fact that we won is a huge milestone.”
Provisions for students with special needs also represent a hard-won victory for the union, which has sought to increase resources for these students in recent years.
Federal regulations developed in the 1970s mandated that students with disabilities have equal access to educational services that students without disabilities receive. However, the federal government has never provided more than 17% of the cost of educating students with special needs, according to AFT National President Randi Weingarten.
Whether it’s a physical or emotional disability, you’re going to need more staff,” she said during an appearance at a BTU event on Wednesday. “It was like robbing Peter to pay Paul in a school district. You need additional staff in the general education classroom to do inclusion. A general education teacher cannot do everything.
Until now, inclusion classrooms in Boston have mostly been just that – a single teacher with dual certification in special education and/or ESL, managing a classroom with regular instruction and those with special needs. Teachers complained that it was nearly impossible to meet the sometimes divergent needs of multiple populations in a single classroom.
Many schools in Boston have a high concentration of English language learners or students with disabilities. At Charlestown High, for example, 31% of students have learning disabilities and 36% are learning English. Because these students perform poorly on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, the state considers the school to be “underperforming.”
State guidelines require students with disabilities and English language learners to be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” that is, in classrooms with general education students. However, since many students with special needs and English language learners require one-on-one assistance in these classrooms, often requiring a second teacher and paraprofessional instructor, these less restrictive classrooms require school districts commit more funding for additional staff.
Yet the state has offered no additional funding to the BPS for its increased special education and English language learning needs. In its most recent review of the district, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found, among other things, that the BPS had concentrated too many students with special needs into significantly separated classrooms.
Elementary and Secondary Education Secretary Jeffrey Riley threatened in June to call the BPS district an “underperformer,” a move that would leave the door open for a state takeover of schools. City officials and Riley reached an agreement under which district officials would address issues, including the high number of students in significantly separated classrooms, despite the state only hiring 10 million dollars for BPS improvements, less than one percentage point of the district’s $1.3 billion budget. .
Wu said the city is ready to invest the additional resources that will be needed.
“We are ready to make a very substantial investment for the implementation, especially of the special education part of this contract and this will be presented to the school committee…probably in the fall,” she said. declared during a press conference held at the AFT congress. .
BTU’s Inclusion Done Right campaign called for no more than 20 students in a classroom, with no more than five students with special needs. Such a classroom would have a general education teacher as well as a special education teacher and a paraprofessional.
The agreement between BTU officials and the Wu administration removed those specific requirements for inclusive classrooms and instead created a provision for inclusion planning teams at each school. The teams will make recommendations on classroom staffing to school site councils or, in the case of pilot schools, school boards.
Wu said the approach agreed in the soon-to-be-finalized contract will allow for greater flexibility than a one-size-fits-all approach.
“We need parameters and we need baselines and frameworks, but our educators have told us the experience needs to be tailored and focused with supports for every classroom for every child,” she said. to journalists. “Opening that up in a way that can really incorporate that range of needs and the ability for targeted resources to go to support class by class or student by student is really what we’re working towards with this new agreement.”
Jose Valenzuela said the city’s commitment to funding inclusive classrooms is long overdue.
“We tackled what has been the elephant in the room for decades – how to give students with special needs the education they deserve,” he said.
Over the past few years, Valenzuela said, BTU members, parents and English learners, and special education advocates have sought unsuccessfully to hold the district accountable for compliance with state and federal mandates regarding the provision of adequate services to students with special needs.
“That’s always been the problem with this neighborhood,” he said. “Whenever a school has a model that costs more, the district balks.”
Although Wu gave no firm amount on what the city is willing to invest, Valenzuela said he was confident the city would adequately fund inclusive classrooms.
“We see this new agreement as a way to restore confidence,” he said.