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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 17, 2011

Reforming special education at GCSD

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Changes are underway across the school district to standardize how students with disabilities are given special services.

A year-and-a-half ago, the district hired a consultant, Futures Education, to examine its special-education programs. Futures Education found that Guilderland’s population of special-needs students, of about 760, had grown 9 percent in the last five years while the growth at similar districts had been 2.5 percent, and speculated this might be because Guilderland lacks “precise quantitative parameters.”

The district, under the leadership of Superintendent Marie Wiles, reviewed the report and focused on four areas; one of them was the entrance and exit criteria for services including occupational therapy, physical therapy, academic support, speech and language therapy, social work, and support from teaching assistants.

Committees were set up to determine the current practices in each area and propose new ones. The current practice for deciding if a student needs a social worker to offer psychological counseling, for example, is based on the recommendation of the Committee on Special Education, a parent, or a professional therapist. When the social worker believes a student has mastered the needed skills, the student leaves the program.

Under the new system, a student’s entrance and exit will be determined by a standardized assessment, Stephen Haden, the administrator for special programs, told the school board in a presentation on Tuesday night. The particular assessment has not yet been determined, he said, because the district’s social workers have different philosophies and are reaching consensus.

“Not everyone fits inside a box,” Hadden stressed, noting that the social worker would still have a say in a student’s treatment.

While access to speech and language therapy has, for about the last five years, been determined through standardized assessments and so needs no change, the other services will all become more standardized.

With occupational therapy, which can teach students such skills as handwriting, organization, and self-regulation, Hadden said a student’s exit from the program would be based on classroom performance over time and a review of individual goals. Some of the services provided may shift to classroom staff, and clinical judgment will be used to determine if there is benefit from the therapy.

“Is the therapy working?…It’s a hard conversation to have,” said Hadden. “We might not be able to help that student more.”

Hadden had told the board in February, “We de-classify about 25 students every year, which is low. More students tend to come in than go out.”

Strategies will be developed for each department, Hadden said on Tuesday, and then parents will be informed of the new criteria.

“It’s a new concept for us — writing goals that are observable, measurable over time…based on individual needs of students, not curriculum based,” said Hadden.

In answer to board questions, Hadden said that, starting in March, the new criteria will be used. While there isn’t enough staff to review all the current students under the new criteria, he said, when they come up for review, it will be used.

“It will probably reduce the numbers, but not significantly,” Hadden said of students receiving special services. “The assessments just take some of the subjectivity out of it.”

“There is a mountain of work,” said Wiles, highlighting themes in the new approach, which is “data-driven” and based on “standardization,….to have actual information to help us make decisions,” said Wiles. “We absolutely know professional judgment matters…We’re trying to balance those important goals.”

Three other areas of focus

Futures Education’s July 2010 report also recommended re-organizing the administrative staff — centralizing the committee admitting students to special-education programs and heading the process with a single point person — and also reconfiguring the teaching staff — cutting back on the speech pathologists, the occupational therapists, and the teaching assistants — in conjunction with a “bring back” and “keep in” initiative, bringing some out-of-district students back to Guilderland.

This “will result in substantive savings while maintaining the district’s well-deserved track record for educational excellence,” the report said. (For the full story on the Futures Education report, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for Aug. 26, 2010.)

The three other areas, besides entrance and exit criteria, that the district is currently focusing on are: organizational structure, out-of-district placements, and professional development.

On organizational structure, Wiles pointed out that this year the special-education administrator at the middle school was cut, with those duties being assumed by a house principal. “So far, it seems to be working just fine,” she said.

The subject will be addressed in January, Wiles said, as part of a presentation on district leadership.

A task force on out-of-district placements that was reported on in February looked at six actual Guilderland students who were placed elsewhere, and determined that educating them in-house would save a total of about $30,542; about 80 students, or 10 percent of those with disabilities, are placed out of the district.

Wiles told the school board on Tuesday that a template has been completed for evaluating the viability of returning programs to the district; it will be used in determining program locations for the next school year. The template determines if there’s a “critical mass” of students to be brought back to the district to be taught. When feasible, Wiles said, “It’s always best to have our students closest to home.”

For professional development, or staff training, the board was presented Tuesday with a long list, starting with Response to Intervention, known as RtI, a state-required initiative where students get help first in a general-education setting.

The task force on professional development, led by Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton, also recommended special-education training for general-education teachers. “We’re working really hard to bridge the gap,” said Wiles. “They’re all teachers.”

Part of that plan is to promote learner independence and avoid learned helplessness. “We’re trying to strike a balance between supporting students and giving them a sense of efficacy,” said Wiles. “We send them to school to learn to be independent.”

Finally, the plan is to model consultant teaching practices so that special-education students are successfully clustered in general-education classrooms.

The board’s vice president, Gloria Towle-Hilt, thanked the administrators for their report. “I think it will bring us to a really good place,” she said, noting the new criteria will provide common assessments and language for the district’s five different elementary schools.

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