A complete review of the Billerica’s special education program yielded a number of areas for improvement, but showed the district is on the right path to reaching them.

“Most of the things you have already put in, we recommend elsewhere. You’re well on your way,” said Dr. Michael J. Palladino, senior associate for planning and management for New England School Development Council (NESDEC).

NESDEC was commissioned to study Billerica’s special education program in December after issues arose between the special education and general education programs earlier in the year.

Palladino presented the study to the School Committee  April 9 and offered a series of suggestions to help the district improve the relationship between special and general education.

The study’s scope was on the elementary schools, particularly the relationship between special education and general education in supporting students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs.

NESDEC collected information through confidential interviews with district leadership, general education and special education staff and parents along with a review of pertinent literature, federal and state laws, and allocation of current special education and general education resources.

According to the study, the district-wide student enrollment as of Oct. 1 is 4,779 students and 837 students (17.5 percent) have been identified as students with disabilities. The current state average of students with disabilities is 17.7 percent.

According to Palladino, Billerica has aggressively moved toward becoming a more inclusive school district in the last five years. The district has done so by developing general and special education intervention and prevention support programs designed to meet the needs of all students in the least restrictive environment, the study said.

One of Palladino’s primary suggestions was to improve dialogue in the district among teachers, principals, staff and parents. The study highlighted a specific interaction showing an issue in communication.

“Two general education parents were concerned that they learned about behavioral issues in the classroom from their own children. Others expressed a concern that the district has not been forthcoming with regard to the severity of behavioral issues in the schools. In addition to the safety of their children, parents posed questions as to the training of general education teachers and support staff in regard to inclusion,” the report said.

NESDEC suggested the district implement guidelines as to when and how parents are to be informed about classroom incidents.

Palladino also said the district should look into how it defines the word ‘calm’ as it pertains to intervention with students that have behavioral disabilities.

The way the child restraint law is written, time-out ends as soon as the student has calmed. NESDEC said this language should be clearly defined by the school district moving forward.

“It is suggested that BPS experts define what it means for a student to become calm and implement a series of meaningful interventions and self-awareness strategies prior to returning a student to the general classroom,” they wrote.

Superintendent Tim Piwowar said this is one of the primary concerns he’s heard in the past and hopes to address it.

“That is one of the frustrations I have heard loud and clear from teachers. A student may leave their room and then come back and their behavior escalates again. I think we can come to a better common shared understanding among everyone,” he said.

One of NESDEC’s other suggestions was to look at the way general education classroom are structured in the Billerica Public Schools.

“The structure within a majority of classrooms observed during this study is not conducive to an effective inclusion or tiered intervention system. For the most part, general classroom teachers are not adequately prepared to handle students with severe disabilities in their classes,” the study said.

It was recommended that general education staff members develop a “new skill set” regarding classroom design and that special education staff members work collaboratively to reach that new design.

The final NESDEC suggestions included professional development for paraprofessionals, coordinating and collaborating student support services, and continuing to seek community-wide financial support.

The study did not look at individual education programs (IEP) in the district.

“We didn’t look at the IEP process, didn’t get the impression that the IEP process was something we should specifically look at,” Palladino said.

School Committee vice-chairman Jim Gately said the report helped identify action items for the district to move forward with.

“This confirmed some of the things we have already heard. I think it's a road map now and we can move forward with this,” he said.

The superintendent said the district will provide updates on how it is making progress on suggestions over the course of the year. He floated September as a time that the first update could come, but nothing was finalized at the meeting.