BENNINGTON -- The Vermont Agency of Education's recent report on special education in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union is providing a focus for how to improve education system-wide, as some parents say the report corroborates their worst experiences.
"Unfortunately we're still here saying the same things," said Laurie Mulhern, an outspoken member of a local parent group centered on special education. Speaking at the most recent SVSU meeting June 26, Mulhern said parents had been coming forward, "discovering we have huge gaps in procedure, policies, other issues," and continually asking for more involvement from the supervisory union board.
"Meanwhile those children have lost"
"I do understand programs are in place, things are going to change ... (but) meanwhile these children have lost another year of their education," she said, speaking two days after the Focused Monitoring Report's release.
The SVSU received an on-site visit earlier this year because of the number of students placed in more restrictive environments, based on time in a general education setting, which falls above the state target and average.
The supervisory union's response to the report is guided by state law and regulation with technical assistance provided as needed. A collaborative team -- an administrative committee of parents and guardians, faculty, administrators, and staff -- is set to begin meeting next week and will work toward formalizing an improvement plan in response to key findings. The group will solicit feedback and hold public presentations as plans progress.
The team will be facilitated by Charles Gingo, a local resident and past field director for the Agency of Human Services in Bennington.
In an interview Thursday at the central office, Superintendent Catherine McClure said she looked forward to the process. "We welcome the opportunity to formalize an improvement plan," she said. "We know our areas of improvement."
The process will also help structure more systemic change in the SVSU, including a reconfiguration of the administration, which was well-timed, according to McClure and Assistant Superintendent Donna Leep. The report's data "can inform our regrouping of the administrative structure," McClure said, as well as policy changes and development. The benefit "is wider than what the focus is," she continued.
Focused Monitoring Report
The report team conducted their on-site review the first week of February. "Triangulated areas for improvement" include the need for a definitive chain of command for decision-making in the special education department, better record-keeping of students' Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), clearer entrance and exit criteria for alternative programs in the SVSU, and a review and alignment of those programs to state standards for easier reintegration into a general education setting.
The team also cited reports of "untimely, contradictory, or non-responsive" communication between the central office and parents and concerns about hiring practices, staff training, and the delivery of special education in more restrictive placements.
At the June board meeting, resident Melody Niles told board members she had an "extremely poor experience" with special education in the SVSU, fraught with unreturned phone calls and suspect testing of her child.
Niles eventually pulled her son from Mount Anthony Union and enrolled him in a private school, which she said she could now no longer afford. "I'm not getting anything from the school system," Niles said. "Now you're in transition, but where do I go, because I have a son who needs to go to school in the fall."
"We're trusting that the professionals that the school has picked for us are going to be providing the level of care that's appropriate," said Tara Skye, who said in an interview June 13 that records pulled from the supervisory union indicated her child had not received the bulk of services as outlined in her IEP. Describing poor service logs and incorrect Medicaid billing submissions, Skye said she only discovered her daughter was not being provided services when she asked.
"I didn't even know to ask. Like most people, I just assume the school says they're going to do something, they're doing it," Skye said. "I don't think it's just one or two providers who happen to be working with my kid. It seems like a problem with the process in general."
Contacted last month before the report's release, Bennington School District board member Kelly Kennedy said problems in the school system were known but that he was looking forward.
"We certainly have had, as a parent of a special education student -- two -- we certainly have had our concerns and issues with the special education department," Kennedy said. "With that being said, we have also experienced some wonderful things with the special education department, and non-special education staff, that has worked with our boys."
McClure this week acknowledged understaffing and the need for better oversight. She said the current transition was a fact, not an excuse. "We want to make sure services in IEPs are delivered," she said. "That's the commitment and the law."
In addition to filling vacancies and a new organizational chart, the supervisory union is also implementing a new web-based information management system to track student achievement called GoalView. McClure said individualized instruction helped students access regular education classrooms. "Our full focus is all students," McClure said.
"Special education shouldn't be such a separate endeavor," said Leep, who is transitioning into the role of director of curriculum instruction and assessment.
Following release of the final report, the SVSU must start work on an improvement plan within 30 days. The plan should be comprehensive and interdisciplinary and target systemwide improvement. Issues of non-compliance in the report must be corrected within one year but improvement activities may extend beyond that date.
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