Around Town

‘High needs’ students now a majority in city schools

WESTFIELD — More than half of the public school students in Westfield are now considered “high needs,” administrators told the School Committee this week.

Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski, Denise Ruszala, director of assessment and accountability, and Christopher Rogers, administrator of student interventions, said at an Oct. 18 meeting that the needs in the student population have increased.

Students belonging to at least one special population that requires additional support now constitute 2,637 of the nearly 5,000 served by Westfield Public Schools. Forty-two percent of students, 2,093, are considered economically disadvantaged. Just over 20 percent, 1,017, are students who have disabilities. Five percent of students, 250, are enrolled in the English language learners program, out of a total of 613 students for whom English is not their first language.

“Those numbers have increased and continue to increase on an annual basis. Westfield is a Gateway City for a reason, and we have been for some time,” Czaporowski said.

Under state law, Gateway Cities are defined as having a population between 35,000 and 250,000, an average household income below the state average and an average educational attainment rate (bachelor’s degree or above) below the state average. There are a total of 26 Gateway Cities in Massachusetts.

In the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s most recent assessment, Westfield is making moderate progress towards its targets of closing the achievement gap for students in special populations, which becomes ever more challenging as those numbers continue to increase, Czaporowski said.

“We do not have any school in our district that requires [state] assistance or intervention,” Ruszala said. She said the state is now placing more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs and on early college programs, and “we’ve been forward thinking in these areas.”

“We were one of the first districts to do the early college programs, with Westfield State. Now the state is encouraging early college, but has not yet modified its accountability system to incorporate these programs,” Czaporowski explained, adding that currently Westfield has between 100 to 150 students from both high schools participating in the early college program with Westfield State University.

Ruszala said Westfield has a good rapport with the state, and is “nowhere near needing intervention.” She said the district has work to do, and has been looking at accountability since before the pandemic, working with the International Center for Education.

“As a district leadership team, our goals are aligned together,” Rogers said. He said the leadership is focusing on the district curriculum accommodation plan and on the Massachusetts Tiered System of Support. “We have a robust literacy intervention program for [grades] K-6. Our biggest hole was math intervention, we have been trying for years to fund it.”

He said the federal ESSER III pandemic relief grant is “a godsend,” as the schools plan to hire eight math interventionists district-wide through the three-year grant funding.

Czaporowski said the district also created the Virtual School using ESSER funding.

“We know we are meeting the needs of a portion of our students. After three years, we will take a look,” he said.

Another focus of the leadership team is on attendance. In March 2020, just before COVID-19 hit, the district was finally under the state’s average for chronic absenteeism, 10 days or more, at 12.78 percent.

“Before COVID, we were making wonderful progress. [But] every time we have to put a child out for quarantine is an unexcused absence,” Czaporowski said.

Rogers said the district accountability team meets regularly with the superintendent and principals, who all know what’s going on in the schools. He said they are taking a hard look at MCAS, more than ever, particularly on math scores in kindergarten and grades one and two.

“We are looking at our assessments to make sure they’re rigorous enough. We will be working with every site,” he said.

“We have looked at our MCAS results,” Ruszala said. “You can compare 2019 to 2021, and they pretty much mirror [each other]. We expected a larger dip. I feel the leadership, teachers and principals have done an outstanding job really focusing on all needs of our students.” 

She added that she would be happy to give a more detailed report in the coming months.

School Committee member Diane Mayhew thanked the team for its presentation.

“The numbers are a little eye-opening, but we need to know,” she said.

School Committee member Heather Sullivan agreed that math is going to be an important piece for the district.

“Kudos to teachers for learning a new math curriculum, and they had to do it virtually, so they were learning two things. We also have to remember how much a teacher brings to the classroom,” she said, adding, “I know we need  to do a lot of work. Let’s keep at it.”

“We always believe that we can do better, and there is always room for improvement,” Czaporowski said.

“That is the basis of education,” said Sullivan.

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