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‘A Golden Opportunity’ in Alexandria
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‘A Golden Opportunity’ in Alexandria

Public school system takes next step in overhauling special education.

The public school division is honing its three-year plan to tighten up top-down control of special education programming, inviting public feedback through next month.

The plan outlines specific actions to implement recommendations from a division-wide audit of special education programs, conducted over the 2017-18 academic year, and briefed to the School Board in October. Though it centers on special education, the plan aims to improve the manner in which schools provide tailored instruction and support to all students generally.

“At least 85 percent of the [special education] students in this school district are [of] average to above-average intelligence,” said Terry Werner, who heads up the division’s Office of Specialized Instruction, at the School Board’s Dec. 6 meeting. “So much of what we do in specialized instruction is truly best practice [for instruction generally]. If we can get that right, it’s going to raise the instructional opportunities for all students, which will improve outcomes for everybody.”

The school division decided to extend through late January an online survey for community feedback, originally intended to close last month. School Board member Chris Lewis applauded the extension, lamenting “the low level of feedback or participation that we’ve gotten” so far. He thinks there exists “a disconnect between the [community’s] demands … [for] academic performance and the understanding of just how integral serving this student population is to meeting those demands.”

The plan focuses largely on consolidating oversight in the central office administration. The November audit cautioned that the division’s current “site-based management model” cedes too much “autonomy” to individual schools, contributing to instructional inconsistency across the division.

“It’s not so much that we’re doing something new,” said Werner. “It’s that we’re taking [measures] to ensure that we are implementing our best practices with fidelity.”

Some of the plan’s measures include:

  • “Establish a permanent interdisciplinary Interdepartmental central office team to guide the [plan’s] implementation.” The team would include members from at least these departments or offices: human resources, student services, alternative programs, and equity; elementary and secondary instruction; talented and gifted services; and English learner services. School Board member Margaret Lorber said she’d like the administration “to think about including a parent voice on that [team].”

  • The superintendent would “establish clear expectations that the Executive Director of Specialized Instruction is the lead official … to initiate and coordinate special education within the division.”

  • “Establish clear expectations for non-negotiable implementation of inclusive practices within each school. Consolidate existing guidance into an institutionalized record to which all staff, including new teachers, can refer and be held accountable.” Inclusive practices are methods of incorporating students with disabilities into general education settings to the maximum degree possible, as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A principal method is “co-teaching,” whereby a certified special education teacher provides special instruction alongside a general education teacher in a general education classroom, rather than in a separate setting.

  • “Conduct walkthroughs to collect data related to fidelity of implementation of best inclusive practices.”

  • “Create multiple avenues for [teacher] training, including more traditional workshops, job embedded coaching (i.e. observing and providing feedback to peers as they are conducting co-teaching lessons), modeling of co-teaching best practices.”

  • Hire a “system-wide MTSS [Multi-Tiered System of Supports] Coordinator responsible for monitoring MTSS implementation,” and “identify individuals in each building to serve as MTSS liaison.” MTSS is a protocol for how educators should apply increasingly more personalized “interventions” for any student exhibiting academic or behavioral challenges. Interventions might involve extra instruction in small groups or one-on-one, or time with a counselor.

  • Rather than principals hiring their own special education teachers, the central office administration would hire “a pool of highly qualified teachers and teacher candidates…. Building administrators will first choose teachers from this pool to fill vacancies within their buildings. Hiring of teachers outside of this pool will be a collaborative process between building administrators and the Office of Specialized Instruction.”

“We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time and money to get to this point, and I want to make sure that we do it right, because I think that we have a golden opportunity in front of us,” said Werner.

Find all related documents at www.acps.k12.va.us/specialeducation. Submit feedback by following the “Students with Disabilities Evaluation” link in the web site’s left pane.