Agents of Change: Milford Public Schools

By Lawrence Hardy

The chairs were arranged in a semicircle, so people could see one another and converse as equals. There was no pedestal for the school committee, no “audience” area for concerned parents, and no microphone. The 4,200-student Milford Public Schools southwest of Boston had taken care to make this meeting -- perhaps “public hearing” would be the official term -- as intimate and informal as possible.

It didn’t make the discussion any less difficult.

“They were angry and emotional -- both,” says School Committee member Michael Walsh, then a candidate for the board, referring to many of the residents who attended that meeting in 2008, among them about 30 parents of children on the autism spectrum.

The parents were upset that little Milford was proposing to end its contract with the widely respected New England Center for Children (NECC), which had supplied teachers to work with autistic students, and to start teaching the children itself, beginning with a pilot pre-k program.

If you were a Milford board member, what would you do? You had parents -- your constituents -- angry that the district was thinking about pulling the plug on the only special-needs program many of them had ever known. At the same time, the staff had studied the issue extensively and concluded that, while NECC was indeed excellent, the district could actually do a better, more targeted job of delivering the services.

That the in-house approach, dubbed Milestones, would save money was both a plus and a minus for board members: A plus because, of course, districts must do all they can to save money in difficult economic times; a minus, because some would think the issue was all about money, which wasn’t the case at all.

Despite the parents’ concerns, the school committee voted unanimously to go with the in-house program. And while there were a few complaints during that first year of implementation, the transition was generally seamless. Now, Milestones serves 60 students from prekindergarten through middle school and is seen as a model program in the region.

“It’s statesmanlike,” says Doug Eadie, ASBJ’s Governance columnist, when told of the school committee’s decision, one that rises “above wetting a finger and seeing which way the wind is blowing.”

Maintaining support

It’s critical to have strong relationships with the community, and, by all accounts the Milford Public Schools’ ties are strong. That’s what led parents to eventually trust the board’s decision, even if they disagreed with it.

“We were trying to get them to buy into the program, that it was better for [their children] to be in the district with their friends, riding on the same bus with their peers,” Walsh says. “We proved we could do it. We just asked them to give us a chance.”

Sometimes leadership is about forging ahead, based on your own knowledge and expertise. But other times -- and often in the case of school boards -- it has to do with supporting the administration your board has helped assemble. You must ask questions -- and, by all accounts, Milford’s board members asked a lot -- but ultimately it may come down to a matter of trust.

“What you have to do when you’re an elected official -- you have to appoint certain people, have confidence in them, and give them a chance,” says board member Paul Mazzuchelli.

To get to that “give-them-a-chance” phase that both Walsh and Mazzuchelli cited, you must build strong relationships: among board members, between the board and administration, and between the school district and the community.

Building and maintaining those relationships is an ongoing process. And when controversies inevitably come up and test these ties, effective boards engage in what Eadie calls “issues management,” an integral part of being a board member.

“You have a responsibility not just to decide issues very well,” Eadie says, “but also to manage issues in such a way that you maintain community support.”

Autism diagnoses on the rise

Autism is a neurological disorder that can affect socialization, speech, cognition, and a range of behaviors. Four to five times more likely to be found in boys than in girls, its prevalence has risen dramatically in recent years and now affects one in 110 children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The autism spectrum refers to a range of related conditions, such as Asperger’s Syndrome, that can affect thinking and social development. A CDC study of 10 communities conducted between 2002 and 2006 found an average increase of 57 percent in children on the autism spectrum, with the increases in individual communities ranging from 27 percent to 97 percent.

Milford, a town of about 25,000, is one place where both the incidence of autism and its severity has appeared to increase dramatically in recent years.

The trend was apparent in the early 2000s. “We noticed a difference in the severity, so we had children coming in with more significant needs,” says Meg Belsito, who was an administrator at the time in the district’s special education office and is now its director.

The district had a contract with NECC, which brought its teachers into the district, but Milford officials wondered whether it would be better to set up their own program, given the increasing number of children reporting the disorder.

Barbara Cataldo, now superintendent in nearby Cohasett, was hired as special education director in 2007 and asked to look into the feasibility of Milford having its own program. School officials wanted Milford teachers to be trained in special education, something that was not happening under the NECC contract. The plan was to build the program gradually, beginning with a preschool class in 2008.

Milford is a predominately working-class town and a city of immigrants. A few generations ago, most residents had Italian and Irish roots, but recently the town has seen an increase in residents of Portuguese descent and immigrants from the Middle East. The population of children receiving federally subsidized lunches is about 25 percent, “with some buildings pushing 30 percent,” says Superintendent Robert Tremblay.

Tremblay calls the proposal to move the program in-house “the overwhelming sense that Milford takes care of its own.”

Says Walsh: “We’re very fortunate that we have a very young and aggressive superintendent, who listens, is very open, brings everyone together -- and communicates.”

Reaching for milestones

Today, Milford now enrolls 60 students in pre-k through middle school in the Milestones program, with one preschool classroom, two in elementary schools, and one in a middle school. The district has three board-certified behavior analysts, as well as trained support staff, which means parents and school staff don’t have to wait to discuss classroom issues, as they sometimes had to do in the past.

The district provides occupational, physical, and adaptive physical therapy. Monthly clinical meetings are held with parents, and a “home log” goes home daily with each student to keep parents informed.

Technology has been a boon for special education students, and Milford was one of its early adopters. Cataldo recalls, early on, seeing an ad for the new iPad 2 and remembers saying to herself, “We need that.” She knew the device’s picture exchange system would be ideal for autistic children who need help expressing themselves.

Milestones is now well-known and respected throughout the region and state. The district has come a long way since the night, more than five years ago, when board members and administrators discussed -- and, yes, at times defended -- the proposal to teach most of Milford’s autistic students with the district’s own staff. Parents have come a long way, as well.

“It was scary,” says Jen Landry, thinking back on the transition. Her son, Zachary, 11, is autistic and now in fifth grade. “We were nervous when they wanted to switch over.”

Now Landry, her husband, and Zachary are delighted.

“He loves it,” Landry says. “He wakes up with a smile on his face, and if you ask him if he’s ready for school, he says, ‘Yes!’”  

Lawrence Hardy (lhardy@nsba.org) is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.