Executive Director of Special Education Stephanie Wyman/ Credit: Needham Observer

After serving for almost a year as interim executive director of Needham’s special education program, Stephanie Wyman was appointed to the position at the April 23 School Committee meeting. 

Wyman has worked in the district for more than two decades, first teaching full time for eight years as part of Needham High School’s special education program, which now includes postgraduate students. She oversaw and taught half of the high school’s special education program before she became the out-of-district coordinator a year later, working with families of children with special needs who were placed in programs outside of Needham. 

“I was teaching previously in Northern Virginia but when I came back, I took a position at Needham High School in one of our sub-separate programs for students with intellectual and varying disability needs,” she said.

Now Wyman manages the special education program for the entire district, coordinating with educators, parents, administrators and the school board to develop and maintain an inclusive and comprehensive special education program.

“I’m in the school buildings — the five elementaries and the two middle school buildings — on a weekly basis, and then meetings are coming up from there,” she said. “I work hand-in-hand with our ELL department, our METCO program, counseling and our directors of guidance.” 

Wyman said she views special education as a wide range of research-based support programs. “When we talk about special education, I would see it as an umbrella of services that support students, and we’re tailoring it based on a student’s needs.”

The Program

Special education services are implemented using Individualized Education Plans. Parents and district specialists assess each child’s needs for support in academic subjects as well as physical and social/emotional needs. According to Daniel Cohen, Needham’s preschool director, the schools implemented a new, state-issued IEP form at the end of February. It gives students more opportunity to provide direct input on their services. 

IEPs develop what’s called Specially Designed Instruction — individualized support services given to students based on their specific needs. SDI is offered through a variety of programs across the district. At the preschool, special education operates through different classroom formats. Students in the hybrid program split their time between general instruction with typically developing students and specialized classrooms where they receive extra support in their specified areas. Preschoolers needing more support are placed in the Integrated Learning Center, where they work on speech, cognitive, social and other types of skills.

Inclusion is a central facet of both special and general education in Needham’s preschool program, said Cohen.“Our approach is focusing on everyone’s uniqueness and individual needs and being accepting of that and understanding that all of our students, no matter what their ability level, no matter how they identify or what they look like, [that] all of our students are working on many skills.”

Throughout the district, students with special needs are also given instruction through “pullout services” where they are taken out of certain classes to receive support by specialists in their respective area of focus.

This has been a source of concern for members of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) who want their children to receive academic support while also not missing out on enrichment classes such as art and music.

SEPAC, a group of parents whose children participate in Needham’s special education program, acts as a consulting and advisory board for the district. The board consists of elected members who meet with the district leaders each month to provide parent input on the program.

Other concerns the group has identified include a lack of formalized curriculum around teaching all students about neurodivergence and special needs. According to Pamela Greenfield, one of SEPAC’s co-chairs, these subjects are taught on a school-by-school basis and based on the educator’s knowledge and discretion.

SEPAC has been working to develop this curriculum with the district for several years. 

“We’re still working together with the district to find this more universal, more formal curriculum, and I think a lot of districts are struggling with this,” she said.

Despite challenges, SEPAC, Wyman and the district maintain a healthy relationship and develop community engagement activities for the town to educate residents on neurodivergency. The organization hosts a monthly speaker series with professionals in the field to discuss executive function, sensory disorders, medication management and other relevant topics.

SEPAC also has developed a mental health support group for parents that meets the first Monday of each month at the Needham Free Public Library, and has worked with the district to create open dialogue around the extended school year program where students receive services beyond the traditional school year.

Greenfield said SEPAC is delighted to have an experienced and knowledgeable special education professional like Wyman in the long-term role.

“She knows the district inside and out and she understands that from a parent perspective, so we were pretty pumped to have her sticking around in a long-term capacity in that role.”

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