Yellow Springs School Board

Survey highlights concerns of special needs parents

Most parents of special needs children in the Yellow Springs school system are satisfied with their children’s program. However, the level of satisfaction drops considerably when the child moves from Mills Lawn to the middle school and high school, where a lack of communication between parents and teachers, and teachers with each other, are perceived areas of discontent.

These are the findings of a survey conducted by the Yellow Springs school district last summer. The findings were presented at a Committee of the Whole school board meeting on Thursday, Oct. 22. About 25 parents, teachers and board members attended. Board members Aïda Merhemic, Anne Erickson, Sean Creighton and Angela Wright attended, while Richard Lapedes was absent.

The purpose of the meeting was to find ways for parents and teachers to work together to improve the special needs program, according to Interim Superintendent Tony Armocida at the beginning of the meeting.

“I know the staff works hard and I know that parents love their children,” he said. “If we’re not partners in this process, we won’t improve things.”

Conducted by Wright State University, the survey elicited responses from 113 parents of special needs students. About 70 parents, or 62 percent, responded, and of those, 28 were Mills Lawn parents, 11 were McKinney parents, 22 were Yellow Springs High School parents and nine were “other,” which meant that the students attended other schools, such as the Greene County Career Center.

According to the survey, almost 79 percent of respondents were satisfied with the local schools, and 84 percent were satisfied with their child’s intervention specialist. The majority were satisfied with the implementation of their child’s IEP, or Individualized Education Plan. A large majority felt they had open communication with their child’s intervention specialist and felt included in decisions made about the child. Since special needs students have been mainstreamed in general ed classes in recent years, intervention specialists are those specially trained to assess the children’s needs and implement the IEP.

However, while more than 90 percent of Mills Lawn parents were satisfied with the school system, and 92 percent felt their child’s IEP was carried out, only 62 percent of high school parents were satisfied, and 68 percent felt their child’s IEP was carried out.

While 85 percent of Mills Lawn parents felt their child had the support he or she needed for success in the classroom, about 62 percent of high school parents felt the same. Only 33 percent of high school parents felt their child’s classroom teachers were aware of their child’s IEP, while 92 percent of Mills Lawn parents felt their child’s teachers were aware.

Some of the difficulty in the upper grades can be explained by the greater complexity involved when special needs students are attending six or seven classes rather than the single class they have in elementary school, according to special education coordinator Terry Strieter, who said that her previous employer, Bellbrook schools, had the same problems in the upper grades. While intervention specialists sometimes work with the child in the general ed classroom, the specialists aren’t able to attend all classes, and general ed teachers are different in their understanding of students’ special needs, she said.

“There are so many more variables in the high school,” she said. “I can’t say how each teacher interprets the IEP or how great their record keeping is.”

In response to questions from parents as to how students’ special needs are communicated to general ed teachers, Strieter said that on or before the first day of class, teachers receive summaries of the IEP of special needs students, along with any modifications needed. YSHS Intervention Specialist David Johnston, one of two specialists in the high school, said he keeps regular contact with teachers regarding special needs students. General ed teachers also receive written quarterly reports regarding students’ progress, he said.

While the system sounds good, it seems not to be working as intended, according to school board candidate David Turner, who suggested the schools institute an audit of the process, either internally or from an outside agency.

“There’s a documented system but it’s still not working,” he said, stating that businesses routinely use audits to evaluate themselves. “It would show places where information is not flowing.”

In response to a question from parent Jerry Papania, Armocida said the district is working to institute additional staff training regarding working with special needs students.

“Most teachers were never trained to do this,” Armocida said.

Communication between parents and teachers can be undermined because parents sometimes feel daunted even trying to understand the needs of their child and the complexity of the system, according to parent Karen Crist, who said that she spent “hours with resources outside the district just to get to a point where I understand how to ask competent questions.”

As a person with a masters degree and some understanding of how to conduct research, she said, “I try to imagine myself not as resourced as I am, trying to do this. And if I don’t understand the process, how well can I advocate for my child?”

Several parents stated that the district’s former parent advocate Moira Laughlin, whose position was eliminated last year, was an important source of information for them.

“The one consistent person I trusted was the parent mentor,” said parent Theresa Mayer. “It’s a huge loss not to have her.”

Parents who spoke said they appreciated the difficulty that teachers face, and believe most are doing their best. However, some classrooms are overloaded with special needs students, a situation at odds with the inclusion philosophy, which states that special needs students should be in general ed classes in “naturally occurring” numbers, Mayer said. Because about 16 percent of district students have special needs, there should be no more than that percentage in any given classroom, yet some classes have almost half special needs students.

“The regular ed teacher can be overwhelmed,” she said.

Overall, according to Mayer, parent satisfaction diminishes in middle and high school because by that time, parents have discovered that they are not always getting accurate information from school representatives.

The board and superintendent will take the feedback they received at the meeting and identify several action steps for ways to improve the program, Armocida said. The action steps will be presented at a special meeting the first week of December.

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