Audit Reveals Progress, Needs For Special Education

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When a group of independent observers reviewed the Alexandria City Public Schools special education system this past spring, they saw shades of 1995.

Born out of last years news that special education within ACPS was out of compliance, the study conducted by a team from the Virginia Association of School Superintendents cited several areas in which the schools could improve and recognized some programs that are already having a positive effect.

For the reviewers, observations made in this years study brought on some mild feelings of dj vu, with findings similar to those of VASSs 1995 look at ACPS, according to Bonny B. Wilson, who played a part in both reviews.

Wilson cited collaboration issues that still exist between general and special education staff, as well as the school systems overall silo structure wherein special education occupies a sphere largely independent and relatively disconnected from the general education program.

Robert McCracken, a member of the review team and former superintendent, also said parts of the ACPS special education program took him back in time.

To be quite honest, when I came here I felt what I felt in 1989 in my school division, he said. That was, we compartmentalized everything. We did not see students with disabilities as equal to all students.
McCracken said that this was not necessarily meant in a negative way, but indicative of a resistance to change to an educational model in which all educators focused on all students.

The review teams 2008-2009 findings, released as a formal report to School Board members and the public last week via the schools website, did not take long to have an impact upon school officials, evidenced with the quick turnaround to a public work session last Tuesday.

In some ways, the report articulated concerns voiced to the Board members over the past three years and made clear that change was way over due, School Board chair Yvonne Folkerts said.

I think we need to do better by our students and I think that came out loud and clear in this report, she said.

The schools asked the six-person review team to evaluate anything and everything related to the special education program, according to school officials, including the school systems progress on its corrective action plan to become compliant with regulations following last years news.

First and foremost, the reviewers said that ACPS has to continue to work toward compliance. Additionally, they said that a change in the prevailing belief system needs to take place, one that includes all children in the formula for educational success. Currently, they observed an attitude that the system does not need to change.

Going on that, the reports primary recommendations for improvement included instilling attitudes of ownership, high expectations and accountability for all students.

The review team wrote that the issue of principals accountability for the education of students with disabilities is an ongoing area of concern.

Auditors found discord between the idea that individual schools take ultimate ownership of their students achievements and the reality in which schools seemed to believe that responsibility for ownership belongs with the central office staff, according to the report.

Noticing variations from school to school, the groups perception was that principals have had no mandate to be accountable for learning and achievement of students with disabilities, according to the report.
The findings also lobbied for increased focus on incorporating special education into the broader, division-wide instructional and accountability goals and a move away from the existing model of compliance with state and federal expectations.

Along with a presentation of the VASS teams report, Superintendent Morton Sherman circulated information comparing special education performance scores from Alexandria schools with the state average on Standards of Learning exams in recent years.

Essentially giving more weight to the information in the report, Sherman cited average APCS special education scores in reading and math that were more than 20 percent below the state average.
In addition, math scores in the citys middle schools stood at more than 30 percent below figures for special education students across the state.

We do not aspire to the goal to be at least at the level of the average student in Virginia, Sherman said, but added that, with schools special education SOL scores below the state average just about across the board, getting to the state average would be a positive improvement.

Its not just the middle schools, its all of our schools, he said. There is a clear and consistent call for improving special education its not a new call, its one to which we must pay attention.

Regarding the existing strengths within the special education program, the review team noted exceptional resources personnel and monetary a new superintendent taking special education needs seriously, knowledgeable staff and good cooperation between special and general education teachers who already serve students together.

According to enrollment figures, 1,830 students were in special education in Fall 2008, making up about 16 percent of the ACPS population. Historically, Alexandrias special education population has been more than 3 percent above the state average.

Its my hope that this report will be a springboard for substantive changes that we need in special education, Folkerts said.

Im glad we did this audit Im not very proud of everything thats in there and I think we need to do a lot better than we have been, she said. So, I dont want to see this become a wasted opportunity.

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