By Carla Branch and James Cullum
In May, 2008, the Virginia Department of Education found that ACPS was out of compliance with state and federal laws regarding the education of students with special needs. An independent audit, released yesterday, agrees.
Sixteen percent of the students enrolled in Alexandria public schools, or 1,830 children, are enrolled in special education programs. Everyone, including ACPS Superintendent Dr. Morton Sherman, agrees that these students are not receiving an appropriate education.
“I cannot emphasize enough that changes must be made throughout the organization – how we recruit and hire all staff, how we train staff to meet the needs of all students, how we deliver curriculum. Most of all, every person will be held accountable for the success of each and every student,” Sherman said in a letter that accompanied the independent auditors’ report.
Sherman commissioned the audit in December, 2008, to address the deficiencies. A six-member study team from the Virginia Association of School Superintendents conducted site visits and interviews with 80 ACPS administrators, teachers, social workers and parents. The team also reviewed various documents and observed special education classes.
“It is clear that the citations of the Virginia State Department of Education’s Federal Monitoring Report a year ago were a wake up call regarding educational practices that need to change,” the VASS report said.
The study team found that “It was clear to the team that certain procedures and processes in special education had not been properly followed consistently in all schools – (Individual Education Plans) IEPs were not implemented properly in some cases, timelines required by law as part of the referral and eligibility processes were not met, re-evaluations were not on schedule. As of February 2009, Student Services/Special Education staff had developed a verification form for reviewing IEPs and reviewed between 50%-70% of the schools’ IEPs. The plan is to review a random sample of IEPs quarterly. New documents related to monitoring compliance have been and are being developed: new administrative guidelines (in progress), a 504 procedures manual (in use), translations of parent’s rights in several additional languages (completed), and a template for scheduling re-evaluations (completed). At the same time, the team heard that how processes work is still inconsistent – Child Study paperwork did not always follow students from one building to the next, and there was no consistent (Response to Intervention) RTI system in place when a child was struggling but was not found eligible for special education. Some individuals did not have skills to properly develop (Behavior Intervention Plans) BIPs and (Functional Behavior Assessments) FBAs to assist children with poor behavior. There were still concerns about good goal writing in IEPs and implementing IEPs,” the report said.
The study recommended that Central office staff work closely with principals and teachers to move toward an instructional model that requires Standards of Learning goals be delivered to all students.
“Across all interview discussions, there was no perceived understanding that general education curriculum and SOLs were considered the ‘program of studies’ for all students and that individual teachers were to modify this ‘curriculum’ for special education students based on their IEPs,” the study said.
The report further recommended that principals at each ACPS school be responsible for ensuring federal compliance.
“The team’s perception was that principals have had no mandate to be accountable for learning and achievement of students with disabilities. In fact, most principals were perceived to be not well versed in even mandated requirements of special education and appear to have had little professional development in this area. It is often assistant principals who are special education contacts, and only few of these individuals have expertise in the area of education for students with disabilities,” the study said.
The report also recommended that all teachers use benchmarking data to ensure that all students are continuing to show educational progress, particularly students with special needs. Individuals the team talked with identified a number of “instructionally-related inhibitors” to academic success for ACPS special needs students. According to the study, ACPS’s special education program lacked a “rigorous curriculum,” there were “low expectations for academic success” and, at the time of the study, there was a “lack of planning time for teachers to work out best instructional strategies.”
ACPS needs to consistently define inclusion. “The instructional and student services/special education staff should develop a time line for implementation of inclusion and a projected schedule for return of students from city-wide programs (at John Adams Elementary School and Jefferson-Houston Elementary School) to home schools once appropriate study of inclusion models and development of the professional development plan are completed,” the report said.
The school system should look for better ways to meet the needs of students with emotional disabilities, including the development of day academies for middle and high school students. These students could then be taught skills that would enhance their employment opportunities after graduation.
Staff development and training must be improved. It was recommended that all new “teachers, principals and assistant principals” and all other designees of special education take a three to five hour class on the federal laws regarding special education.
Sherman has taken other steps to improve special education systemwide. “We are conducting a nationwide search for a committed and proven leader in the field of special education for the position of executive director of special education. Already, I have elevated the position from director to executive director, and the person responsible for the special education program will sit on the executive staff and report directly to the superintendent,” he said in the letter.
ACPS must submit a plan for complying with the State’s mandates in June. The Alexandria School Board will discuss the VASS report at a work session on June 2, and vote on the superintendent’s recommendations before the Board adjourns at the end of June.