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Parents parley over IEP needs

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More must be done to address issues in the special education program in the Yellow Springs schools, especially in the upper levels, according to approximately 10 parents who came to a special meeting held on Wednesday, Dec. 2. The meeting was the second convened by school administrators to address the results of the special education parent survey the district conducted last summer.

Parent feedback from the survey led the schools to establish 12 action steps to bring about improvement. But several parents expressed frustration at the meeting that those steps do not address the core problem, which many feel is the inconsistent level of familiarity teachers have with student’s Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs. An IEP is the document that charts the specific needs of each student receiving special education services.

Other concerns voiced at the meeting include the caseloads and qualifications of special education staff, how in-service teacher training time is used, and the amount of time that passes before parents have access to their child’s grades.

“It’s not a perfect program — we can see some procedural things that could be improved,” Interim Superintendent Tony Armocida said at the meeting. “But we’ve got a tremendous amount of action steps — I think there are linkages taking place here.”

Special services for special needs

The problems brought to light in the survey, according to parents at the meeting, are that many parents at the high school and middle school level have had experiences with teachers that suggest they were unfamiliar with the student’s special needs, as described in the IEP.

The bottom line, according to YSHS Principal John Gudgel, is that parents want assurances that their child’s IEP is known and followed. An in-school special education meeting for teachers is scheduled this month to discuss their process.

An IEP is a confidential document that lists the accommodations and modifications that a teacher is required by law to implement for any student who receives special education services. A similar plan, the 504, is used for students whose needs may be met before entering the full range of special education services. At the upper school level, the information is accessed through a digital grading system, Progress Book, which allows parents, teachers, and administrators to view a student’s plan, as well as their current grades.

“Accommodations are things that don’t reduce the curriculum but help support the student,” said Special Education Supervisor Terry Graves-Strieter, like increasing the amount of time a student has to complete an assignment. “A modification is actually reducing the content” a student is expected to learn to fulfill the state’s requirements, she said. And general education teachers are required to be familiar with the 504 Plan or the IEP so that they can modify that student’s curriculum.

At McKinney and the high school, teachers are given a summary sheet of each student’s needs at the start of the school year. But parents maintain that the full IEP may never be accessed from Progress Book after receiving a summary, given the challenge each teacher faces juggling the needs of an entire class and the clunky nature of the software program. This difficulty is exacerbated when many special needs students are in one class, as is often the case in this small district, according to parents at the meeting.

Some parents expressed concern that there is sometimes a significant lag time between a test and the posted grades, making timely tutoring very difficult.

At the meeting, parents offered multiple ideas that they feel could eliminate problems in the special education process, which one parent called unstandardized.

But the staff needs to be involved in any discussion about their process, according to Graves-Strieter, who said that district teachers are professional, hard working, and very much committed to educating district youth.

12 steps for special ed

Some of the steps administrators have taken to improve the special education program include holding a meeting for parents to hear from Pat Gay, the new family consultant engaged by the district to act as a liaison for parents who are navigating the special education system. That meeting takes place on Thursday, Jan. 7, at 7 p.m. at Mills Lawn.

Another action step was fulfilled with the distribution of a state guide called “Whose Idea Is This,” and committing to putting detailed special education information on the district’s Web site by March. The school also talked about reconvening IEP team interventions when a student’s grade drops below a D, and involving parents, general and special education teachers, and the student in those meetings.

The district is evaluating how well student transition plans help students and families prepare for life after high school. Staff will be trained to use the new required forms. The district is also evaluating the process teachers use to access summary sheets and IEP records. And, according to Graves-Strieter, general teacher evaluations will now include how well they implement IEP’s in the class.

“I feel sympathetic for the teachers, but we still have to find a way to make this work,” parent Shernaz Reporter said. “Parents need to feel confident and comfortable that their kids are getting what they need, and teachers need to feel supported.”

Gudgel asked for parents to be proactive about reporting non-use of the grading system, so that he could follow up with teachers in a timely manner. While test results can’t be expected the morning after a test, Gudgel said misuse by a minority of teachers damages the credibility of the entire system and should be better managed.

The final action step identified in the special education plans is that new administrative hires, which will likely include a superintendent and two principals, will have knowledge and experience in special education, according to Armocida and Graves-Strieter.

Parent Lauren Miller raised concerns that administrators have made questionable hiring decisions in the special education program, by not employing those with the expertise that she feels the program requires and deserves. But administrators and board members cautioned that a public forum is not an appropriate place to discuss personnel matters. Personnel matters are discussed exclusively in executive session, they said, which is not open to the public or the press.

Armocida maintained that every person in a position of employment with the district is legitimate. “Every person who is working in this district is certified to be teaching what they are teaching,” he said.

But parent Sylvia Ellison, in a conversation after the meeting, said that while this is technically correct, there are alternate certification routes that can be used to employ teachers who are not licensed. It is the administration’s current use of an alternate route that concerns parents at this time, she said.

Increasing the frustration of some parents throughout the meeting, multiple issues they raised could not be discussed in a public setting because of confidentiality requirements.

“Your individual needs and concerns need to be addressed,” said board member Anne Erickson, “but they can’t be addressed in a public setting. We have to be very careful about confidentiality with our staff and with your students.”

The best approach for parents with concerns is to begin with their special education case manager, and then proceed to the principal or the special education supervisor if their needs are not addressed, Graves-Strieter said. While confidentiality is a concern when engaging parents as volunteers, Graves-Strieter encouraged parents to stay involved and attend classes and presentations when offered.

And while multiple administrative positions are in transition, she said, she is not going anywhere.

“I want you to know that I care about your kids. I feel I have a great staff that works hard,” Graves-Strieter said. “Is there room for improvement? Sure. But I’m committed to making these things happen.”

Accountability is key to a better special education program in the district, parent Jerry Papania said.

“Steps need to be taken so that it is not business as usual,” he said. “We’re looking for results here. We have a moral obligation to keep getting together, and to do things right.”

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