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‘Academic Optimism and High Expectations’
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‘Academic Optimism and High Expectations’

Schools to overhaul special education programming.

“We have not had consistency across the division,” said Gregory Hutchings —Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gregory Hutchings

Alexandria’s school system has proposed a three-year plan to tighten up top-down control of special education programming, and invites public feedback over the next two weeks.

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.

The plan stems from an audit, conducted by Public Consulting Group, a firm, over the 2017-18 academic year, and briefed to the School Board last month. Regarding programming for students with disabilities and their families, the consultants’ report says the school division “has a solid foundation on which to build.” But it cautions that the division’s current “site-based management model” cedes too much “autonomy” to individual schools. Tighter supervision from the top is necessarily in order to ensure greater “fidelity” — a word occurring 13 times in the audit’s 22-page executive summary — to best practices.

“We have not had consistency across the division,” said Dr. Gregory Hutchings, the schools’ superintendent. “Everybody’s kind of working in silos and every school is at a different level. Even though we’re focusing on the same things, there really isn’t a division-wide expectation of what this [special education] looks like, or what it should look like, in every classroom.”

Hutchings wants principals to maintain “some autonomy” because they “serve different populations.” However, there should be clearer “non-negotiable accountability measures,” according to the consultants’ audit.

To tighten up central office accountability, the proposed plan includes a variety of action steps, summed up by four “themes:”

  • More structured, mandated professional development for teachers and administrators regarding research-based best practices;
  • More structured “proactive and responsive communication” with parents of students with disabilities;
  • More structured monitoring protocol “to drive a shared culture of accountability;”
  • A new, permanent interdepartmental central office group to oversee implementation.

In particular, the consultants’ evaluation calls for central leadership to bolster “a system-wide culture of academic optimism and high expectations for all students.”

“The message that I want to get out and people to hear is that 85 percent, plus, of the students with disabilities in this school district are average to above-average intelligence. That means that they can achieve commensurate or better with their non-disabled peers,” said Terry Werner, who heads up the division’s Office of Specialized Instruction.

“It just frustrates me to no end that we still have teachers and principals in our school system that have low expectations,” said School Board member Ronnie Campbell. “They know [the students are] intellectually disabled, so ‘how far are they going to go anyway, we’re not going to send them to college.’ So they don’t push” students with disabilities to succeed, and yet “they’re still here.”

In 2010 the division hired “a nationally recognized expert and author in the area of inclusive practices” to consult with principals, according to the audit. But only seven of 19 building administrators opted to take “advantage of this opportunity to help them build foundations for inclusive practices.”

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.

The division’s mission statement “says ‘every student succeeds,’ which is a lot of work,” said Hutchings. “It’s going to take us … really defining that for our school division, and determining who believes it and who doesn’t. Unfortunately that means that everybody might not be around if they don’t believe that.”

Inconsistency shows not only in varying degrees of cultural buy-in, but also in other areas.

The audit found that over 80 percent of white, Hispanic and multi-racial students with disabilities are included in the general education classroom 80 percent or more of the day. But the proportion for black students drops to 77 percent, and for Asian students to 58 percent. The audit also found that black students “were five times more likely to be identified as having an emotional disability, and two and a half times more likely to be identified as having an intellectual disability.”

Of students with suspected disabilities who are referred for a special education evaluation, English learners are found eligible for special education half as often as non-English learners. The audit suggests this could be a good sign, perhaps indicating that the schools aren’t mistaking struggles arising from linguistic and cultural challenges as disabilities. But Janet Eissenstat, parent of a student with disabilities and chair of the school division’s Special Education Advisory Committee, is more dubious. She thinks more English learners may in fact have disabilities, but that language barriers may prevent parents from being able to advocate effectively for their child. Or testing may yield skewed results if not administered in the student’s native language.

But the opportunity for improvement goes beyond special education. Eissenstat thinks the kinds of improvements indicated in the audit would help schools better “meet kids where they are” more generally — whether those students grapple with a disability, learning English as a second language, being a refugee, having suffered trauma, etc. This is especially true for racial “gap groups” persistently identified through standardized testing, she said.

Under the division’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports, first established in 2015, educators are supposed to 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.

“The [multi-tiered] framework has been successfully used to support a reduction in disproportionate special education referrals of students based on race, gender, or [English learner] subgroups,” according to the audit. However, “implementation varies greatly between schools, and occasionally between grades within the same school.”

In addition to honing the more reactive multi-tiered intervention approach, the audit recommends the division enhance training around the more proactive Universal Design for Learning. A school of thought first developed in the 1990s, Universal Design for Learning “aims to change the design of the environment rather than to change the learner,” according to CAST, an education research nonprofit. Training would seek to equip teachers in a more systematized way in a range of teaching methods and media that better align with students’ diverse learning styles and barriers.

“When implemented consistently across a division such as ACPS, [Universal Design for Learning] has the potential to improve educational outcomes for all students, including those with disabilities,” according to the audit. However, the approach “does not appear to be a widely understood or implemented concept in [the school division],” even though the division “has conducted trainings on the topic in the past. In 2015-16, [the Office of Special Instruction] offered extensive professional development with CAST on [Universal Design for Learning], but reportedly no participants signed up to attend.”

Find the audit report, the proposed action plan and information about upcoming public forums at www.acps.k12.va.us/Page/2331. Through Tuesday, Nov. 20, the public may provide feedback online at www.acpsk12.org/news/?p=11008. The school administration expects to present the final action plan to the School Board on Thursday, Dec. 20.