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.

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