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Something Special

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A newspaper reporter called me yesterday to ask if I wanted to make a comment on a story she was writing about Special Education and the charter schools. I’m not sure what her angle was but she mentioned having talked to the parent of one of our school’s students. The parent complained that her daughter was not getting the services she needed from the school. I did not call the reporter back. Simply put, I’m tired of talking to reporters about what our school does not have. I could not think of any way that my conversation with the writer could help the students at McDonogh 42 Elementary Charter School, the parents of the students, the teachers at the school or the academic program. It could help the newspaper company sell a few more papers, if the story were sensational and negative enough to attract the attention of the anti-charter folks. I’m not in the mood to help sell newspapers today.

The special education situation is dire throughout the city's schools. Not only do we have a severe shortage of qualified special education teachers, we don’t have space for self-contained classes, and we don’t have records for all of the students with special needs. In some cases, returning students were already receiving special education services pre-Katrina. These are the easiest to identify and serve because we have evaluations and IEP’s which only need to be updated. Other students were evaluated in far-flung school districts all across the nation. Unfortunately, the parents did not register their children with the proper documents in hand. We have had to wait on paperwork from different states before determining what the children need. The most difficult group to help is the students whose parents wanted to hide the fact that their children had learning problems. Only after identifying the students can we determine what type of assistance they’ll need. Then we have to find teachers for them.

It’s true; some of the charter schools “cherry-pick” students and leave the more difficult to serve students standing outside the door. The state department pledged to monitor the schools to ensure that everyone has their requisite number of special needs students. I know of at least one school that did a blitz for speech only students to meet the designated percentage. That way, they did not have to take the emotional and behavioral disordered students, the autistic students, or the physically disabled students. The mother of a little Chinese boy did not want his school to know her son was blind when she registered him, after he was turned away at one of the prime charter schools. The child is also intellectually gifted. I think this happens more frequently than anyone would like to admit.

So far, we’ve turned away one child, a kindergarten student in a wheelchair. Although she could use a ramp to get into the building, she would not have access to the auditorium, the principal’s office, the computer labs, or the school nurse’s office. There is no elevator and the building, built in 1925, is exempt from the current regulations for handicapped accessibility. Our wheelchair-bound students are sent to a neighboring facility that is more modern than ours. It’s one of a few renovated buildings in the area and is a center for students in wheelchairs. The building is very similar to ours with one exception; they have an elevator.

I was a special education teacher and I’m certified is several areas. How hard can it be for me to get services for our special needs students? Let me tell you, even if you know what to do, you can’t always afford the price. It costs our school $1,900 per child for a full evaluation. We budgeted $38,000 to test about 4% - 5% of our students for special education. We’d already identified 26 students with special needs and three gifted/talented students. Of the 26, 8 are speech only. We finally found a part-time speech teacher who will start working soon. The other 18 students are currently being served in a program we inherited that the RSD called “full inclusion.” To describe it briefly, the regular classroom teachers have the special needs children in class with the regular education students. A Special Education teacher visits the classroom once a day to work with the special students for a little time. In some cases, there will be a para educator or aide to assist. That’s it. The regular education teacher has no prior training on how to work with the special children; they have not read the IEP’s and don’t understand how to teach a student who is 3- 4 years below grade level while preparing the other students for high-stakes tests.

Many of these "full inclusion" students were in more restricted environments pre-Katrina. They still need this higher level of services. In order to give it to them, we’ll need to reevaluate them—at a cost of $34,200. This does not leave us with enough money to test the new unidentified special needs students who are arriving every day. We took one step forward in identifying our students with special needs. Now we will take two steps back in trying to reevaluate them and conduct initial evaluations for our potential special education students.

One idea is to have a resource room with extra opportunities for students to learn in small groups. With a para professional and half a dozen computers, we can monitor work for clusters of students grouped in sets of early childhood, elementary, and middle school students who need individualized attention. It will be handled as an extension of the classroom and lessons will be designed by the teacher of record. Practice with the tutor will be done in the resource room instead of in the back of the classroom. We will have to be careful to avoid making it a regular pull-out program. I don’t think this idea will violate any of the special education rules. There’s nothing that says we can’t give them a little something special.

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Talking with some of my friends who have moved here to teach, this is one of the issues that has come up most frequently. New teachers especially see the full inclusion rule to be a major burden. (They are just learning to manage "normal" students, let alone students with exceptional needs.) Sadly, I think this is something that time will heal, though this seems unfair to students who get lost in the middle. In the next few years, once schools get settled, awareness can be raised for students with IEP's. What a heavy load--I can see the challenge of the charter more fully through this post.

I wonder if anyone has figured out a way to make the current situation better. Any ideas out there? I'd love to hear from operators of other schools who have solutions to the unique needs of serving special populations. What can we do to help the teachers?

This past year, I rushed to join the RSD as a speech-language pathologist. I was inspired to be a part of a new system trying new things in educating the most challenging kids - the old ways weren't working, right? I wanted to be a part of this experiment where the best and brightest seemed to be flocking. I never thought I'd look back and miss the Baltimore City School System (although I knew that I would continuously miss the kids). I was glad to leave behind the calcified, complacent bureaucracy, the ugly politicking of administrators, and seemingly willful closed-mindedness to changing old ways. Yet, the Baltimore City Public School System had a much more sane system for special education. Unexpectedly, after so many months in the RSD, I now have misty, watercolored memories of aspects of what I left behind.

I will try to list simple things that worked in Baltimore. Things that could easily be implemented in any school.

1) A set day of the week (or 2 if the school has a higher caseload of students with special needs) for scheduling IEP meetings and RtI meetings.

This not only simplifies scheduling, it helps everyone to thoughtfully plan for upcoming meetings. Firstly, Principals, special educators, and related service providers would know to be wary of scheduling other things on the IEP/RtI meeting day. Upcoming meetings are also less likely to be forgotten in the melee, especially when a calendar of upcoming meetings are distributed a month or so in advance. The result is better availability of staff to attend meetings and quality preparation of meetings that leads to better outcomes for the students with special needs.

2) Advance notice of meetings.

This would be much, much easier if there were a designated administrator who could oversee compliance and scheduling in the first place. Nevertheless, I do think that it's possible the way things are to give at least 3 weeks notice of upcoming meetings to IEP team members. I can't stress what a huge disservice it is to students and families when teachers, special educators, and related service providers are not informed of upcoming meetings, and are thus unprepared when they take place.

3) Attendance of all IEP members to meetings.

The law states that a classroom teacher, a special education teacher, a parent, an administrator, and 1 other person who can understand the process(usually a related service provider such as myself) must attend an IEP meeting in order for it to meet legal standards. In the RSD, I have rarely witnessed a lawful IEP meeting in this regard. Lack of attendance is a disgraceful disservice to everyone involved, but to none more than the student. Having advance notice of meetings (#2), and having a special day set asside for meetings (#1) makes it easier to plan for covering classes so that teachers may attend meetings for their students. When teachers attend meetings, they learn about their individual students' needs and what their accomodations are (rather than receiving cryptic pages from an IEP they had very little part in developing, the accomdations are actively explained). When everyone attends the meeting, classroom teachers also have the valuable opportunity voice any questions or concerns to the special educator, or related service providers.

I have the impression that IEP meetings are regarded as an unimportant waste of time. The way they are conducted presently, I can easily see the source of this impression. So many times, I've had to stop therapy or instruction in order to attend yet another IEP meeting that I didn't know was scheduled. While sitting unprepared in the meeting and feeling inadequate and unprofessional, I would grow increasingly dismayed at missing legally mandated therapy sessions. After a less than stellar meeting, my morale would sink further at how behind and off-kilter my painstakingly planned week had become. When meetings sneak up daily and deadlines are so pressing, the paperwork takes precedence over the process.

I miss the process. The paperwork will always be a pain, but the process is why I do my job.

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