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Striving for Compliance in the Hartford Schools

By Kerri Provost

December 26, 2011

In late September, the Connecticut State Department of Education’s (CSDE) Bureau of Special Education published its Monitoring Visit Report in which it outlined how the Hartford Public Schools (HPS) were found to still be in noncompliance with federal and state special education requirements; in 2005 it was found that HPS did not implement students’ individualized education programs (IEPs), among other failings. The September report follows a monitoring visit that took place in December 2010.

That it took nine months to create said report was noticed by Superintendent Kishimoto, who had not received the report initially and requested a meeting with then-Acting Commissioner Coleman and Associate Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker. Kishimoto, not an outside hire, should have been aware of the report, which would have been in development when she served as Assistant Superintendent, a position which seems to require knowing about major issues with the school system, such as noncompliance.

During the visit last year, officials reviewed student files, interviewed principals and school employees, observed classrooms, and consulted with central office special education administrators. They visited Bulkeley (Upper and Lower), High School, Inc., Hartford Public High School Freshman Academy, HPHS Law and Government Academy, OPPortunity High School, Pathways to Technology, Weaver Journalism & Media Academy, Culinary Arts Academy, Joseph A. Bellizzi School, Breakthrough Magnet School, Ramon E. Betances School, Martin L. King, Jr. School, James H. Naylor School and Parkville Community School.

The report indicates that while some improvements were made since 2005, when CSDE began requiring that HPS “redirect a portion of its entitled funds under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) to improve special education services for students with disabilities (3), the Bureau of Special Education received formal complaints between 2008-2010, with over one-third of those complaints related to services provided for students with emotional disturbances.The complaints reflected child-specific noncompliance and systemic noncompliance, notes the Monitoring Visit Report.

The report states that “team members” witnessed “several examples of high quality classroom instruction in the general education setting,” but that “a significant number of students with” emotional disturbances “are performing approximately one to three grade levels below their current grade placement” and “require the differentiation of instruction and use of accommodations and/or modifications in the general education setting in order for students to succeed”(9).

What explanations have been given for failing to meet the needs of students? The report notes that “special education administrators reported that HPS categorizes special education with health services rather than with academics,” which interferes with collaborative possibilities between the other academic departments, leaving them out of conversations about “curriculum, instruction and school design” (5). Additionally, it was found that “HPS does not have a formal means by which to hold principals accountable for their performance in relation to special education programming and fund expenditures” (5).

The conversation on accountability, since implementation of No Child Left Behind, has come to mean holding school employees responsible for standardized testing outcomes, but in this case, they are actually expected to do more than boost test scores.

Within the 25-page report, poor intra-district communication was noted: “Students’ files arrive to the receiving schools two to three months after students began attending those schools. As a result, students experience gaps in the provision of their IEP services because the receiving schools do not have information on students’ needs” (6). The district response to this allegation has been to call it “erroneous information,” claiming that mail is delivered same or next day, and that the delays were instead on the receiving end within the schools. This claim does not explicitly explain how a file would be not received for several months, which, regardless of where the fault lies, means that a student with special needs was unable to have these needs met.

The problem, however, goes beyond transfer students getting lost in the shuffle. In August, the CT Mirror reported that some students have experienced even longer delays in receiving services. One HPS student, at time of publication, was still waiting for a reading evaluation; at that time, the student had already waited seventeen months.

CSDE found that the central office’s student files to be “very disorganized” (7) with paperwork missing or misfiled. Pages from IEPs were missing, as were functional behavioral assessments and functional behavior intervention plans. CSDE writes, “the disorganization noted in these files is especially alarming as central office’s student files for these students are the only files in the district regarding these students” (7). This issue was attributed to not having adequate staffing, as those doing the filing were out of office 40% of the time.

The quality of the IEPs themselves drew criticism. Among items missing from them: input and concerns from students and parents. Not to mention the potential difficulty of having an appropriate education provided on a day-to-day basis, when sections of IEPs are missing, it could become difficult to assess whether those students are best suited for accommodations when taking standardized tests, or if they would be better candidates for the MAS. There is a significant difference between accommodations (longer time to take the test, etc.) and the MAS (an entirely different test which removes “distractors” (trick questions), among other things).

Students with emotional disturbances were provided with one half hour of counseling services per week; the tone of this observation indicates that this might not meet the needs of all students.

This school “Choice” process, at surface, seems to meet the needs of students requiring special education services. The Hartford Public Schools’ website states:

"What happens with Special Education students in the Choice process? Students will follow the same process as all Hartford students and the required services will follow the student to any school chosen. Call 860-695-8550.""

But for students who have been determined as needing placement in a “self-contained therapeutic classroom setting,” gaining access to such rooms may be difficult as there are only four in the district, and “a certain number of slots in this group of classrooms are set aside for specific schools in the district” (10).

There appear to be more services available for younger students, but the older set have fewer options. The Hartford Public Schools’ website (screenshot below) describes where certain needs can be met:

What this tells us is that a student with significant multiple disabilities has one high school that he can attend and have his needs met: HPHS Law and Government Academy. A student whose primary disability is autism can choose between Bulkeley and Weaver during the first two years of high school, but can only finish at Weaver. There are no high schools listed as having center-based programs for students with emotional disabilities. By not providing such services, students are pushed into dropping out, transferring out-of-district, or simply not having their needs met.

The Connecticut Pushout Research and Organizing Project just released a report in December about the “systematic removal of struggling and vulnerable students from traditional high school.” The report includes descriptions of how students with learning disabilities and attention disorders have been pushed toward dropping out. Between this and the high number of arrests in urban schools — including 17 at the Latino Studies Academy at Burns Elementary between March and May 2011 — it seems that students’ access to a free and appropriate education has been impeded.

But for students placed out-of-district, there were noted issues regarding funding and transitions. Some students received “homebound tutoring services” for “as long as two to three months and, occasionally, such students await placement [outside the district] without any homebound services at all” (11).

Inadequate funding is always an issue. Although HPS uses “student-based budgeting,” there are reported delays in the transfer of funds when students moved from one school to another. The inadequate funding for paraprofessionals has posed other concerns. One teacher I spoke with during the 2010-2011 school year — when the HPS were being monitored — indicated that his/her school provided an expensive piece of assistive technology for an individual with special needs; due to budget cuts, the paraprofessional who was trained to help the student use this equipment was laid off. The learning aid was said to be sitting in a closet, collecting dust, according to this public school teacher.

David Medina, Director of External Communications for Hartford Public Schools, says that “at the present time, we do not have any equipment that is not being used due to staff turnover.”

While the data collection for the report was done during December 2010, a lot happened between then and the report’s release in September. The Monitoring Report states that “HPS’ longstanding noncompliance with 34 C.F.R. Section 300.201 and the trends noted through the CSDE’s recent monitoring visit demonstrate that HPS is not meeting its programmatic and fiscal responsibilities under the federal and state special education requirements consistently. The 2010-2011 school year dispute resolution data demonstrate that, as of June 30, 2011, 30 formal complaints were filed with BSE against HPS [...] all of the investigations resulted in findings of noncompliance against HPS” (14). Kishimoto began her tenure as superintendent on July 1, 2011.

What is being done to ensure that students have access to a free and appropriate public education? The Monitoring Report demands that the HPS submit an Action Plan, which must include, among others, the following changes, as described by the CSDE:

•collaboration between general education and special education district administration

•collaboration among district and building administration to ensure the timely provision of special educations services

•ability to evaluate a principal’s performance in relation to the implementation of federal and state special education; allow special education department to provide input on a principal’s performance

•development of procedures to hold principals accountable for repeated violations of federal and/or state special education requirements

•improved communication between HPS’ Choice office, special education department and send/receiving schools when students with disabilities transfer

•standardization of file organization system and revision of file management

•regularly scheduled special education professional development and technical assistance for HPS district administrators, principals, general and special educators, and paraprofessionals

•design and implementation of more comprehensive continuum of special education services, modifications and accommodations in a general education setting.

•integration of self-contained classrooms into the schools in which they are located

•seamless transition from in-district to out-of-district placements

•more transparency about the HPS Dispute Resolution and Complaint Management System: posting information in central office of each school and sending letter with this information to the parent/guardian of every student who receives special education

•adjust the SBB system so that schools comply with special education programmatic and fiscal responsibilities

The CSDE has placed some conditions on IDEA funds for fiscal year 2012:

•use $250,000 of IDEA funds to pay for a monitor (a two-year contract) who will keep tabs on HPS’ progress

•conditional release of HPS’ IDEA funds ($6,600,500) over the 2011-2012 school year to make sure that HPS completes its action plan and corrects its noncompliance promptly

In addition to the other requirements, the CSDE has recommended HPS do the following in the short term, while creating its more complete Action Plan:

The Action Plan was due to CSDE by December 15th, and Medina says that “District administrators met with state department of education officials” on that date “to discuss the Hartford Public Schools response with the goal of formulating a finalized plan.” He describes “the session as very interactive and collaborative.”

Medina says that “at this time that the district is in the process of filling key leadership positions in special education, including an Executive Director and zone directors. Moreover, each school has been asked to designate a staff person at the building level who will be responsible for oversight of all clerical work involving special education students.”

A member of the Board of Education seemed less confident in the results of these actions, saying maybe some good would come of them, but that this is more of a bandage than addressing the problem. While some see this noncompliance as a set of issues specific to the management of Special Education, others see the report as part of a nationwide trend of how No Child Left Behind exacerbates existing inequities in education.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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