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Droves of parents turned out last Thursday night to express concern about the recent firing of Harwood Union paraprofessional Denise Fuoco at the December 9 school board meeting. School board members heard public comment before entering executive session to hold a grievance hearing.
Fuoco was fired after she failed to prove her "Highly Qualified
Professional (HQP)" status by passing a federally required written exam,
a task made increasingly difficult due to her dyslexia.
She has worked in the Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) for the past several years including seven at the Moretown Elementary School prior to joining Harwood.
At Moretown, Fuoco was allowed the accommodation of submitting a portfolio of her work in lieu of taking the test. She filed a grievance with the Harwood School Board after she was informed that that accommodation would no longer be afforded to her and that she would need to take and pass the federal test.
Several parents of special needs children spoke to Fuoco's skill and high level of professionalism while working as a para with students with Down syndrome, many of whom she had worked with prior to middle/high school.
Ellen Reilly, parent of a special needs Harwood student who had worked one on one with Fuoco, said that under Fuoco's guidance her son's behavior had improved significantly and is proven by the data she presented to board members.
EXPERIENCE AND SKILL
When Fuoco was chosen as her son's paraprofessional, Reilly said administrators told her, "I think you will be extremely happy with the individual we've chosen; she has incredible experience and skill and has worked almost exclusively with children with Down syndrome."
Reilly said, "Denise hit the ground running. She was able to implement the behavior plan with minimal support."
"I question the choice of WWSU to limit the options provided by the federal government and enforced by the state in determining HQP status," she continued.
Under section 1119(c) through 1119(h) of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) the federal requirements for Title I, part A, "instructional paraprofessionals" to achieve HQP status, paraeducators must have a high school diploma or its recognized equivalent.
In addition, they must have completed at least two years of study (defined as a minimum of 48 credit hours) at an institution of higher education or obtained an associate's degree (or higher) or meet the standard of quality and demonstrate it through a formal state or local assessment.
According to the Vermont Department of Education, "The latter option (II-C) may be fulfilled through standardized assessments such as <MI>Parapro or Paraeducator.net<D>, or through a locally developed portfolio process (see <MI>Where do I find out more about testing options?<D> for more information about testing). LEAs may also choose to accept comparable HQP documentation from other school districts or states."
NOT GOOD ENOUGH
Kelly DeFelice, mother of a special needs Harwood student who has worked with Fuoco in both Moretown and at Harwood, said that "Denise being fired and the way she was fired was unjust and a disgrace to Harwood and WWSU; the message it sends is that they are not good enough."
DeFelice also read a letter written by her daughter Faith in support of Ms. Fuoco that asked the school board to give Fuoco her job back.
Harwood paraprofessional Susan Whitehair said she was trained last year by Fuoco who taught her, among other things, some sign language to help understand the students.
"Our first meeting at school, we heard about how great Harwood was, how we think out of the box; this woman thinks out of the box more than anyone and she's fired. I'm devastated. She's an asset we cannot afford to lose," she said.
Harwood parent Cheryl Kingsbury said, "I don't know if I'm more mad or sad. Here we are with this woman that has so much to offer, gets fired because she can't take the test because of her disability; never did we hear that this was a lack of performance."
Kingsbury said after many "rocky years" as a student, once her daughter started at Harwood "that all changed; with spending part of her day in the resource room, she got to know Denise and in their brief interactions, she felt something from her and felt positive about school for the first time."
"I'm a difficult parent. When it comes to my kids I want nothing but the best for them. I wouldn't be here advocating for her job if Denise wasn't the best," Kingsbury added.
School board chair Scott Mackey told the group that the board would enter executive session to hold the grievance hearing; a decision is due Thursday, December 16.
I HEAR YOU
WWSU Superintendent Brigid Scheffert told attendees, "I find it very difficult to come before the group tonight. Whenever there is conflict or difference of opinion, the one thing that is hardest, you don't know me as a person. I have a nephew with special needs. I am a special educator. It's where I began my career. I have a master's in special education. I hear you. I understand you."
Scheffert continued, "I sit here as a superintendent that has obligations, whether I like them or not, there are state and federal rules and regulations. They help us run our schools and funding is tied to those. It's not something I can ignore. I regret that we are here tonight. I pondered long and hard over this decision, tried everything I could for some wiggle room."
Where the option of submitting a portfolio in lieu of taking a test was concerned, Scheffert said that out of the 60 supervisory unions in Vermont, one uses the portfolio method.
"The standard is significantly higher and would have to be implemented for all paraprofessionals in WWSU," she said.
RESPONSIBLE TO YOU
The portfolio would need to consist of a collection of coursework, workshops and the like and, according to Scheffert, the law doesn't allow schools to use it unless its equivalent to coursework form an institution of higher learning.
"I have to be responsible to you and of course I care about the children, but I'm also responsible for federal and state reports. I'm trying to do the job to the best of my ability. I regret that we're here and hope I've shared enough with you. I also don't want to be one of those superintendents that says, 'No comment,'" Scheffert said.