2018-02-23 / Front Page

Officials, parents stand up for special ed director

By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH – The Cape Elizabeth School board approved the superintendent’s recommended contract renewals for Cape Elizabeth High School Principal Jeff Shedd, Cape Elizabeth Athletics Director Jeff Thorack, Cape Elizabeth Middle School Principal Troy Eastman, Pond Cove Principal Jason Manjourides and assistant principal Sarah Forrey-Pettit and Director of Teaching and Learning Cathy Stankard last week. One name missing from that list that drew the ire of several parents and staff members at the Feb. 13 meeting was Jessica Clark’s.

Clark was hired as Cape Elizabeth School’s special services director in July 2016 after working as a consultant specialist at the New England Center for Children in Southborough, Massachusetts, but interim superintendent Howard Colter is not recommending renewing her contract past June 30, when it is set to expire. Clark took over as head of special education from Steve Floyd, who served in that interim capacity for the 2015-2016 school year following the May 2015 retirement of Jane Golding, who came to the district in 2011.

“My decision has been not to offer an extension,” Colter said before telling the Sentry he could not offer specific reasons for making that decision.

He said for a contract to be renewed, it must be brought forward to, and then accepted by the school board.

The decision didn’t sit well with several residents and staff members who expressed support of Clark at the school board’s Feb. 13 meeting.

Clark could not be reached for comment.

Alina Perez, a Cape Elizabeth resident who is a clinical psychologist in the school system, said since Clark came onboard, “she has taken a very proactive approach in ensuring each student is treated as a whole child whose educational needs are truly and indeed individualized” and has “worked long hours” to work with parents, gain their trust and develop a plan that is in the best interest of each student. She said Clark brings a creative problem solving approach, as opposed to the “autocratic” approach used in the past.

She said because Clark is the third special education director in the last four school years, the special education staff has had to “deal with a revolving door of changing approaches.” Perez said the consistency Clark has brought over the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years has helped staff morale and called Clark a “respected and dedicated leader.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Jon Delisle, a special education teacher at Pond Cove Elementary School. He said with the change in special education leadership over the years “the vision for both shortterm and long-term student success changed based on the leader. Staff morale plummeted and trust was broken at many levels.”

He said since her hire, Clark has been open and transparent about her vision for the program and “understands the importance of having proper programs in place to achieve maximum student success.”

Delisle said during the last 18 months, “there have been numerous ways Mrs. Clark has proven she is not only a good fit for Cape Elizabeth, but rather a perfect fit” by personally knowing the strengths and needs of everyone that has (an individualized education plan) that Delisle has case managed and when visiting his classroom refers to students by name and can carry on a personal conversation with them.

“I’ve never seen that before in a special ed director, nevertheless any administrator in my 14 years in education,” he said.

Delisle said if Clark is not offered a contract for next year “we will be doing a disservice to students, parents and staff.”

Maureen Cahill, an occupational therapist in the school system, said not offering Clark a contract extension will have a negative impact in the schools.

“We have a true leader, someone who genuinely cares for both the students and staff and cares about leading Cape in the right direction, but I feel that is so easily discarded. I can’t seem to make heads or tails of this,” said Cahill, who in her 15 years in Cape Elizabeth has been through five special ed directors, including one who she said was degrading to students and her peers.

Cahill said Clark, much like quarterback Tom Brady has done for the New England Patriots, has led the special education department through “some great and challenging moments.”

Cahill said it “has been a long time since I have seen our team inspired and motivated” the way it has under Clark’s leadership. A constant change in leadership, she said, weakens the level of success of the staff and students.

Beth Mylroie, a Cape Elizabeth resident and special education teacher, said she “feels very strongly in the direction” Clark has taken the department while developing “trust, confidence, integrity and respect.”

“She is an amazing asset that we hired a year and half ago and I am shocked at the prospects of having to go through (a hiring process) all over again,” Mylroie said.

Mylroie urged the board of education to do its own investigation into the “basis for not offering continuing her employment.”

“I can speak for the entire board in that we have heard you. We appreciate everything that has been written and emailed to us over the past few days and the weekend,” said Cape Elizabeth School Board Chairman Susanna Measelle Hubbs. “This is not an easy matter and we take everything seriously. We value what you value. We do. We recognize the frustration about the changes that you, as a department, have faced over the years and we believe very strongly the department is made up of individuals who are all amazing and strong and who all put the students’ needs and best interest first.”

The school board, Colter said, was expected to meet in an executive session Feb. 15 to discuss the topic and what was brought up at the Feb. 13 regular school board meeting.

Colter said no action was taken at the executive session.

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