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Regents to focus on improving special education

Regents to focus on improving special education

Progress not satisfactory, federal government says
Regents to focus on improving special education
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia toured P-Tech in Johnstown in 2015.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

ALBANY -- State education officials Monday committed to redoubling efforts to improve outcomes for special education students after a fresh reminder of longstanding problems.

During Monday’s Board of Regents meeting, some of the Regents appeared surprised to learn the state has been listed by the federal Department of Education as not making satisfactory progress with special education every year going back a decade.

But state Education Department officials sought to refocus on the issue Monday, presenting a report that showed the state failed to make progress during the 2016-2017 school year on 14 out of 17 measures of the state’s special education program, including graduation and dropout rates, parental involvement, timeliness of special-education hearings, racial disparities and special education classifications and others.

“We’ve been in this cycle for a while, and it’s a critical kind of situation,” Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said at the meeting. “Part of what we need to make sure is this becomes center on a regular basis, obviously the sense of urgency is critical.”

More than 40 districts statewide in the summer were identified as not meeting requirements under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which spells out national special education law. At least a dozen of those districts, including the Schenectady City School District, have not met those requirements for at least eight consecutive years.

“They all know the data, they get reports that they are out of compliance,” Rosa said of the districts. “What we [the Board of Regents] haven't done has been to be more directed and overseeing whether or not they are making the change.”

New York has been identified by the federal government as a “state in need of assistance” for over 10 years. The presentation Monday, which one board member called “shocking” and others appeared taken aback by, aimed to set the stage for revamping how state officials oversee and work with districts struggling to comply with the federal law.

The state Education Department in January published three requests for proposals looking for bids to help improve various parts of the state's special education program. The proposal requests seek plans for establishing family and community engagement centers to serve parents and families in understanding special education programs; developing technical assistance centers to work with educators serving special needs students; and creating special education educator training focused on cultural, racial and linguistic diversity.

Officials promised a second presentation to detail next steps in reorganizing its special education program after the bids process was finalized. The Regents said they were limited in how much they could discuss during the meeting because of the active request for proposals.

After the meeting, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said the Regents over the years have received updates on reports about its struggles with special education requirements but said Monday's presentation was an effort to draw attention to the importance of refocusing on those struggles.

“We wanted to make sure they realized the extent to which we have work to do in this area,” she told reporters. “You heard the Regents -- they were very clear we can’t allow this to continue without very focused interventions and not just have people [and districts] just checked off as they did not comply or have not done what they need to do to change those data points, and so that’s what we are going to be doing.”

Elia said state officials are having meetings with leaders in districts like Schenectady that have been identified as not meeting the state and federal targets for at least eight consecutive years. Those districts may be asked to update their special education program plans or take other steps as state officials ramp up its work and focus on special education.

In Schenectady schools, the graduation and dropout rates and state assessment scores of students with disabilities have consistently registered the district as not meeting its obligation to special needs students. Other districts that face similar challenges and share similar demographics to Schenectady – urban districts with high-poverty student populations – have also registered

Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said expanding and improving special education services and tightening its classification protocols has long been a focus of the district, acknowledging the difficulty in making the gains necessary for the district's special needs students to meet academic targets.

“This has been since my first day here one of our biggest and most complex areas that we had to get at,” Spring said. “We have been doing a lot of cleanup of getting kids into programs where they belong, creating programs where kids have need.”

Spring said the district’s new “general education continuum” program, a spectrum of increasingly intense student services that mirrors special education programs, aims to prevent students from unnecessarily being classified as needing special education services because of academic performance.

Over the past few years, the district’s special education classification rate has gradually slid from around 20 percent to around 16 percent. But still about a quarter of students classified with special needs in last year's senior class dropped out; the graduation rate for students with disabilities was 33 percent. While just 22 percent of the district's students scored proficient on state English language arts tests given to students in third through eighth grade, only 4 percent of special education students scored proficient.

Spring pointed out that students classified for special education almost universally struggle academically, resulting in the troubling test scores and graduation rates, otherwise they wouldn't rise to the level of classification.

Spring said the district will continue developing programs and services to meet the emerging needs, particularly around mental health issues, of students with special needs, while continuing to work without the full funding levels Spring and state education officials say are needed in Schenectady.

State officials said they working with the district's leaders on steps needed to meet federal requirements.

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