District 51 special education plans improve
One of the first things Tanya Skalecki did after becoming District 51 director of student services in July 2010 was audit 100 special education plans for students in the district.
“I found none of them met legal compliance,” Skalecki said.
So it wasn’t a total shock that fall when the Colorado Department of Education performed its annual audit of local special education plans, which it does for every district, and placed District 51 on a corrective action plan in 2010-11. The department found violations in District 51’s plans in 2005-06, 2006-07, 2008-09 and 2009-10. Without major improvements, corrective action was the next step.
During an audit, the Department of Education checks about 10 percent of a district’s special education plans, which it calls “individualized education programs,” or IEPs, for compliance with federal rules.
The plans can be 20 to 30 pages, according to Skalecki, and are designed for students with autism, hearing or vision issues, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, speech or language impairments, emotional disabilities, or a combination of these factors.
Ed Steinberg, Colorado special education assistant commissioner, said there were “significant concerns” about District 51’s plans. If the district didn’t improve, the next step was a “needs substantial intervention” plan, which would allow the department of education to withhold all or part of the district’s federal special education funding.
“The good news is we’ve taken them off the corrective action plan because they’ve done a significant job,” Steinberg said. “They’ve completely turned that district around.”
The corrective plan required the district to outline specific actions it would take to improve itself. Skalecki brought in a lawyer to train every special education teacher in the district plus an administrator from each school. She trained all the special education coordinators and started having them meet with every special education teacher annually to go over plans. That training and those meetings with teachers will continue.
“I know there was training before, but there was no follow-through,” Skalecki said. “I had teachers tell me no one ever checked their IEPs and gave them feedback.”
The district has vowed to check more than 50 special education plans each year. That still leaves up to 98 percent of plans unchecked each year.
“I’m just not sure how we’re going to get there,” Skalecki said, referring to checking all plans. “Is it perfect? No. But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Steinberg said it’s “inefficient” to expect the Department of Education to check all individualized programs, although he said the department will check more than the usual amount if reviewers find “red flags” in a batch of special education plans.
Steinberg added about a half-dozen Colorado school districts are on corrective action plans this year, about the same amount as last year, when District 51 was on the list.
“We’re thrilled with what Mesa has done,” he said. “Rarely if ever do we see this kind of rapid turnaround, and it’s not superficial. They made this a priority.”
Using a checklist of 57 special education plan regulations, Skalecki found district employees were consistently violating a handful of requirements. Parents, a special education teacher, a classroom teacher and a public agency representative (i.e. Skalecki or a person she appoints), have to be present whenever a special education plan is written.
But sometimes people would leave for part of the meeting and, often, there was no public agency representative at the meeting.
Parents are supposed to leave the meeting with a completed plan for their child’s education needs, which can range from a child becoming easily distracted in class to severe disabilities. Skalecki found some parents were waiting months to receive a completed plan.
Other violations included parts of the special education plan not being printed in the parents’ native language, parent input not being written in the special education plan, and the plans leaving out specifics about how the child’s education would be tailored to fit his or her needs.
Skalecki said she learned it was symptomatic of a pattern in the district of working on some violations and then other violations popping up.
“The approach I took is we need to focus on all of the indicators,” she said.
Skalecki said she hopes to have at least 75 percent of the special education plan she and people in her department check this year be completely compliant. The district was rated “continuous improvement” by the Colorado Department of Education this fall because all of its special education plans checked by the department were compliant.
“If we meet compliance in IEP, we are driving student instruction. It’s that thought of making it work so we’re doing what needs to be done, which is closing the achievement gap for all students with disabilities,” Skalecki said.