Monday June 24, 2013

Donna Leep

Today the Vermont Agency of Education will post for public review its "Focused Monitoring Report," for the SVSU, summarizing its findings and recommendations relating to SVSU’s implementation of special education laws. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), (20 U.S.C. 1400 (c)(1)), provides federal funds to assist states in educating children with disabilities and requires each participating state to ensure that school districts and other publicly-funded educational agencies in the state comply with the requirements of IDEA and its implementing regulations.

The purpose of Focused Monitoring is to help supervisory unions and school districts to identify strengths and weaknesses in the delivery of special education and related services to students with disabilities. All Supervisory Unions eventually undergo monitoring, and because it is a labor intensive process for both the State Agency of Education and the school districts involved, only a few supervisory unions are monitored each year. The process is meant to be a supportive assessment to help schools, districts, and supervisory unions implement changes that improve educational outcomes for all students.

The monitoring is "focused," because each year a priority area is selected to be the focus of monitoring efforts. This year, the SVSU was chosen because the focus was on the law’s "least restrictive environment" requirements. "Least restrictive environment" refers to a central premise of the federal special education law: that each child with a disability should be educated with his or her non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate to the child’s needs. School s must provide a "continuum of placements" of varying degrees of intensity, to address disability-based needs that cannot be met in the regular classroom. This continuum includes everything from "pull out" of the regular classroom for brief periods to receive specialized instruction, to the other end of the continuum, placement in a private residential program for students who need 24/7 programming. The SVSU is one of the largest supervisory unions in the State and has a great number of students who need individualized programs (in FY’ 13 650), the SVSU likewise has several classrooms on the "continuum of placement". This is one reason why the SVSU was chosen for monitoring of these programs.

The State Monitoring Team undertakes a number of activities to review the focus area, including review of local placement data; comparison of the SVSU data with those of SUs across the State; interviewing and sending surveys to parents of children with disabilities, school staff and school administrators; and reviewing special education records of individual students, including their "Individualized Education Programs" ("IEPs") to see if these records reflect the restrictiveness of environments in which the child is being taught.

The AOE report commends initiatives in the SVSU, including: good team teaching models at MAUHS and MAUMS; Professional Learning Communities at Pownal and Monument Schools; the implementation of the Positive Behavioral Intervention Model, and the resulting significant impact on school climate; use of technology in the general education classrooms; use of Student Support or Success rooms where children can process inappropriate behavior , one of MAUHS’s responses to lowering dropout rates by development of the Quantum Leap program; and the Early Childhood Program and EEE staff’s collaborative relationships with local Head Start and community-based pre-K programs, and effective Educational Support Team (EST) procedures. 

The monitoring team identified four areas of concern that are supported by at least three sources of data and indicated actions that should be taken by the SU to improve educational outcomes. The relationship between monitoring and corrective actions is the identification of solutions linked to the identified problems. Corrective actions are designed to create systemic changes that result in improved student performance.

Clarifying lines of communication with parents, and lines of communication and responsibility between the Supervisory Union and staff in member districts. This past winter the supervisory union created and continues to circulate a communication flow chart, showing the appropriate lines of communication when a parent has a question or complaint. The hope is that responses will be quicker and more effective. Also chain of command issues have already been discussed by the Superintendent with building leaders to clarify lines of authority and communication.

Reducing the number of students in alternative special education programs, and ensuring that the IEPs of students in such programs identify the skills the child needs to learn in order to move to a less restrictive environment and that progress on those goals is monitored. Clear entrance and exit criteria for each alternative program need to be identified, and staff trained in the application of the criteria. Curriculum for such programs is to be aligned with general education standards , facilitating return to less restrictive settings.

Review and develop hiring, assignment and training practices for staff in special programs, and improve documentation of restrictiveness of environment in IEPs. The SVSU will improve the process for the hiring, training and assignment of staff who work in the most restrictive environments within the schools’ programs, and fill follow specific recommendations with respect to documentation in IEPs.

Overall, the focused monitoring process helps to clarify areas that the SVSU can identify for improvement, and offers specific technical assistance on how that can be accomplished. We will be working with administrators, special education teachers, related services specialists and families to build an improved communication system in support of educating special education students and monitoring their success.

Donna Leep is assistant superintendent with the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union.