CHARLES TOWN – Are too many Jefferson County special education students being sent outside the county for help?
According to a federal compliance audit, the answer seems to be yes.
The Comprehensive Coordinated Early Intervening Services audit cited the school system last year for showing “significant disproportionality” in providing out-of-district special education programs and services.
Tracking what are considered accepted statistical norms, the audit concluded that not enough special education students in Jefferson County are being served in their home school or district.
The audit review included an assessment of the “race and ethnicity” of the school system’s population and determined that a disproportionate number of white students—particularly those with autism and behavioral issues—are being bused to specialized private education centers outside the county. More students should be served at their home schools according to national education standards.
As a result, the county school district is out of compliance with national education regulations designed to uphold “mainstreaming’ standards to keep as few special-needs students as possible from being isolated from their other peers.
Mainstreamed special education is considered generally more beneficial to students than placing them in specialized institutions that should be used mostly for students with the most severe problems. Several county students, for example, are sent to the private Grafton School in Berryville, Virginia, that specializes in serving special education students.
During a school board meeting last Thursday, Cindy Jones, Jefferson County’s director of pupil services, said an increase in the number of students diagnosed with autism and behavioral issues along with a shortage of special education teachers available to hire are major factors causing the county’s imbalance in providing in-county and out-of-county special education services.
Last month, Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson signed a formal remediation plan approved by state education officials to address the compliance problem over time. Under the agreement drafted over the past year, the county school district is required to direct $319,000 annually, 15 percent of the federal Medicaid funds it receives —toward serving more special education students at their home schools.
In addition to creating two new special education positions for the upcoming school year, the phased remediation plan calls for hiring as many as three “coaches” to guide teachers without special education training on how to serve special education students in their classrooms. The 12-page plan also would create a staff position to train parents of special education students.
In addition to hiring a central education office bookkeeper to handle special education billing issues, the remediation plan also proposes to allow three central education office administrators to work 51 additional days into the summer to work on special education issues. An existing central office secretary position would also change from a part-time to a full-time position to handle extra Medicaid paperwork for special education reimbursements.
For future school years, several other staff positions would be created under the remediation plan.
During a two-hour presentation and discussion last week, school board members were asked to approve personnel hirings outlined in the remediation plan for the upcoming school year. However, the discussion prompted more questions than answers for school board members about the county’s special education program and what changes should be made.
Questions arose such as whether the compliance problems might be driven by faulty student data, whether adequate and timely student testing is being done to diagnose children’s learning disabilities and whether the remediation plan in place seeks to hire too many central office employees over classroom teachers.
Some information about the compliance problem was never mentioned or provided during the school board discussion. School officials, for example, didn’t explain how many students need to be mainstreamed for the county to become in compliance with federal regulations, a point that the remediation plan doesn’t address.
How much time the county can take to come into compliance wasn’t mentioned and isn’t clear.
Meanwhile, a state education department’s undated, two-page letter to county school administrators about the compliance violation and the plan Gibson signed was not given to school board members as background before the discussion.
School board member Donna Joy, who was a special education teacher for 15 years, initiated several questions, then school board members Mark Osbourn and Laurie Ogden followed with more questions of their own.
Ogden questioned the timing of hiring special education coaches for teachers. She said those hires might not be the best decision when it’s not known whether the school district may have to revert to an all-virtual instruction platform—where students and teachers remain at home—under another coronavirus classroom shutdown.
“I still don’t know that I feel really comfortable that we have a handle on where we are,” she said. “If our goal is to bring more of these special education students into our classrooms, our teachers are completely overwhelmed with managing students with so many different needs.”
Ogden said she has not received enough information yet to justify hiring a full-time Medicaid administrative position. She also said she wanted to know more about whether the school district is giving its employees enough opportunity to cross-train to learn other jobs. Such cross-training, in addition to providing staff career growth opportunities, could save money to address the special education issues in other ways, she said.
“I think that we need to get a little bit more creative with what we are doing with the people we have and how is this going to happen,” she said.
School board member Mark Osbourn voiced concern about state requirements to use a “tiered” assessment system for identifying grade-school children with reading and learning disabilities. That system, Osbourn said, often prevents too many children from receiving timely services early enough to keep them from permanently falling behind in their grade-level reading ability.
Children generally learn to read from kindergarten to second-grade, and, from then on, students read to learn, said Osbourn, a retired Jefferson County teacher and principal.
“I have a great deal of difficulty with that lag of a year-and-a-half, two years before we’re identifying those students as learning disabled,” Osbourn said. “We’ve missed the sweet spot of those children in learning how to read.”
While acknowledging Osbourn’s view that the assessment is state policy that needs to change at the state level, school administrators said their plans include hiring a dyslexia specialist in the future who would assess the many students for that and other learning challenges. Those assessments should help identify more students with learning disabilities earlier even under the state policy, said Jones, the pupil services director.
Leading the questioning, Joy pointed out that the county school system has reported that 14 percent of its students were receiving special education services for the past four school years. The percentages of white, black and Hispanic students receiving special education services were also reported as 14 percent for each demographic group.
Having such unvarying statistics over four years was “highly improbable,” Joy said. County and state school officials, including a state education department statistician, admitted to her that the county’s data was “statistically impossible” and couldn’t be correct, she added.
“A part of why [the school system] was considered out of compliance was based on this data, but it’s possible that the data was wrong,” she said. “I just think there should be more clarity. You can’t make these decisions about hiring when you have conflicting data.”
Shawn Dilly, the school system’s deputy superintendent of instruction, acknowledged that “there is a disparity” between software platforms used by the county and the state that hold such student data.
“What is the real data?” Joy asked in response. “Because maybe we’re not out of compliance.”
“This has been happening for years,” she added. “The government, the state doesn’t just come after you after one year of messing up. This is a pattern.”
Joy said one potential problem with inaccurate data could be that not enough minority students are having their special education issues identified and therefore addressed. For example, twice as many black students as white students in the county are identified as living in low-income households, a factor known to statistically increase the rates of special education needs among those children, she said.
“For that reason alone,” she said, “it behooves somebody to go and get these numbers straight.”
Joy asked why the remediation plan sought to hire coaches to work intermittently with teachers who are not trained in special education, rather than hiring classroom special education teachers to work directly with students. “Why wouldn’t you hire an autism specialist if you have such an increase in that disability?” she asked.
Because of the nationwide shortage of certified special education teachers available to hire, Jones said, the school district has employed 17 long-term substitute teachers to meet the needs of special education students.
Joy pointed out that school officials said that one reason the school district is out of compliance is that they are using too many substitute teachers in special education positions.
She also pointed out that the school system’s standard operating policies allow school officials to hire a long-term substitute teacher even if two qualified special education teachers apply for an open special education teaching position.
Jones said the school system advertises several times a year to hire special education teachers but the school system has difficulty attracting qualified individuals for those positions.
“That challenge is not unique to Jefferson County Schools either,” offered Amy Loring, the school system’s human resources officer. “There’s a special education and autism teacher shortage nationwide. … There are not enough certified teachers in special ed in this country in order to fill our positions.”
“It’s even more difficult if we have a policy that allows us to hire [substitute] teachers over teachers,” Joy responded.
Dilly said hiring coaches is a stopgap measure to deal with a high turnover rate in substitute teachers providing special education services.
“The thought process behind the team’s decision was to provide a coach that could assist all of that transition in order to create a great deal more stability as well as some consistency in the response to the kids’ needs across the district,” he said. “We know as time proceeds that these are only a small step in the grand scheme or hope of addressing all of the needs and growing challenges within the district.”
Joy asked whether classroom teachers were asked what they thought their needs would be to help more special education students. Teachers have told her that what they want and need is more assistance from another teacher or aide in their classrooms to manage additional special education students, she said.
Noting their various questions, a majority of the school board agreed to postpone any hiring decisions related to the remediation plan for another discussion in the future until after they receive more information.