TPS special education compliance scores improveWritten by John P. McCartney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Gault’s face beamed as he introduced the final topic at May 14’s Toledo Public School’s (TPS) Curriculum Committee meeting. Gault, the district’s chief academic officer, said, “We’ve been sitting on this for at least the last six, seven weeks. But now we can finally talk about it. We know what’s become of our special education review.
“We improved from less than 30 percent compliance to over 80 percent. The state came in three years ago and told us we would improve or else they would take special education services away from us. We told them we could do it ourselves. And we did.”
Gault turned the floor to Karla Spangler, director of student services, to explain how TPS’ special education compliance scores have improved by more than 50 percent from 2010 to 2013.
Spangler said that when the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) reviewed TPS’ special education program in 2010, the district was found to be “significantly” below compliance.
The compliance review looked at:
- “Child find,” the psychologist part of the evaluation. The psychologist is the overview person.
- Delivery of services.
- Least restrictive environment.
- Data verification.
Spangler reported that in 2013, the district went from failing scores “to nothing below a high B.”
From auditor to director
Spangler said she was a part of the ODE team that conducted the 2010 compliance audit.
“I previously worked for the Ohio Department of Education,” Spangler said. “I was actually part of the audit in 2009-10. A year ago, I was embedded in TPS; 50 percent of my time was compliance under the ODE.
“When Mr. Gault said, ‘Either clean it up or the state is going to take over … what happened was, I was embedded here 50 percent of my time to work on compliance.”
Spangler said after the 2010 review, she worked on the TPS corrective plan with Charlotte Cosart, TPS’ previous director of special education.
“When Charlotte told the board she was retiring toward the end of the school year, they came to me and asked if I would be interested in working with them.
“And my side of it was, ‘As long as you support compliance, I think it’s an exciting venture.’ And the people, the staff have been wonderful.”
‘Fox guarding the hen house’
Twila Page, secretary of the African-American Parents Association and a longtime advocate for special education students and their parents, said she finds TPS’ hiring of Spangler to head a program she once evaluated for the state a bit shady.
“It’s the fox guarding the hen house,” Page said. “If anybody would know how to cheat the system, it would be her. And nothing’s changed. As a matter of fact, to me, it’s even gotten worse.
“A parent I have worked with gave me this paperwork. It reads: ‘On March 5, the district will hold a public meeting to describe ODE’s Office of Assessment of Children’s (OAC) on-site review process. There will be an opportunity for parents, guardians and other members of the public to share any comments with OAC regarding TPS’ special education department.’
“What’s interesting to me is, how come I didn’t get one of these? I have filed more complaints against TPS where they have had resolutions where they have been found guilty. Why wasn’t the whole community made aware of this? There are ways for you to provide public comments at the meeting and to provide written comments, but if you don’t know about it, how can you do any of those things? It seems like they only advertised this meeting to certain people.”
‘It’s perfectly legal’
Steven Flagg, an education advocate who has followed TPS and education issues for the past 17 years, said he does not find Spangler’s work history problematic.
“It’s perfectly legal,” Flagg said. “Lobbyists do it all the time. It happens all the time in the business world. Businesses are always hiring people who have worked in the government. They think it may give them certain advantages.
“Maybe she’s just really good at what she does. It makes sense for the district to hire someone to make sure TPS jumps through all the right hoops and receives good compliance scores. The only problem rests in whether she received anything, like a huge salary increase, for favors she might have given TPS in overlooking something in the 2009-10 report.”
However, Flagg said that given how poor the 2010 compliance scores were, it was “highly” unlikely Spangler’s hire was unethical.
On equal footing
Spangler said when TPS is compared with other Ohio urban districts, “we were the same or above those other districts. To give you a comparison, in ‘child find’ alone, there were 52 areas that were possibly noncompliant. They found us noncompliant in only two areas.
“First, in years past, we did not complete evaluations within the three-year timeline. But when you look at the full audit, you will see that has been corrected. That is under the [purview] of case managers working with the psychologists and checking monthly to make sure our evaluations are done on time. As far as [ODE] is concerned, we are compliant in that area.”
Spangler said TPS had not been checking monthly with “the same rigor that it is being done now. It was more reactive instead of proactive.”
However, she said her predecessors did start the timeline compliance process by convincing administrators to hire more psychologists to ensure TPS could meet the three-year timeline.
Spangler said TPS has also worked closely on its intervention for students.
She said academic coaches are general education teachers “who actually go into general-ed classrooms where students aren’t succeeding as high as we want. And if students are not being successful in an area, academic coaches give those [teachers] additional ideas — new or different ways to teach something.”
Spangler said “delivery of services” is TPS’ highest area of special education compliance.
“Our supervisors went to each building and met with teachers individually,” Spangler said. “We did an IEP (Individualized Education Program) with them for compliance. We made sure they understood what they were doing right and what areas they needed to work on. We gave them a ‘cheat sheet’ to use. We also did compliance with new teachers and with their long-term subs.”
Spangler said the “cheat sheet” she developed is instrumental to student success because the ODE evaluates an IEP to ensure the document is compliant in seven areas of a child’s profile:
- the child’s strengths
- parents’ concerns
- the result of the most recent Evaluation Team Report [ETR]
- progress reports
- needs that have been identified
- performance on districtwide and statewide assessments
- response to classroom-based intervention if those responses are not in the Present Level of Performance document.
“When they see the ‘delivery of services,’ ‘least restricted environment’ or ‘goals,’ they expect all these pieces to be in it. So we created this ‘cheat sheet’ that each teacher has so they know to check through to make sure, ‘When I do this, this is in it just like this.’ It’s really a check sheet — a rubric — to make sure teachers include all of these different criteria when they’re putting together an IEP.”
Spangler said TPS’ teacher union, Toledo Federation of Teachers (TFT), has a stronger role in making district-wide educational decisions than almost any union in the U.S. However, she would not discuss why TPS is required to “work closely together” with a union to implement its educational mission.
“It’s just history,” Spangler said. “I will say, though, that I think we have a very cooperative relationship.”
Flagg said he has some reservations with the decision-making authority TFT enjoys.
“If it’s a collaborative relationship where the district can listen to union concerns, just like they should listen to all citizens’ concerns, I have no problem with it,” Flagg said. “I only have a problem with it if the union can veto good policy. Policy should always be made in the best interest of students, and there are many, many cases where the district has bad policies that have nothing to do with the welfare of students.”
Spangler credits Jane Frye with the district’s successful data verification compliance scores.
“We were lucky enough to hire [Frye] to work with us on DMIS (Data Management Information System),” Spangler said. “That’s the government program used to collect student data. She makes sure our dates and timelines are in compliance, and we’re doing a much better job in that area.”
Spangler also said the compliance audit included two other areas — gifted education and budget — that few people “think of as special ed, although they do fall under special ed.”
Spangler said she and Gayle Schaber, director of special projects and compensatory programs, “have a little tweaking to do in the ‘gifted’ area, but she’s on top of it. We’ve worked as a team all year long [developing and] putting a process in place for early entrance to school and early acceleration.”
Spangler said TPS’ “tweaking” included sending letters to parents so they would understand how to enroll and get their children tested.
“We worked with the psychologist so we have all that paperwork done,” she said. “We just have to get it approved and then that piece is ready to go.”
Monitoring the money
Spangler said TPS’ biggest fiscal problem is monitoring the nine non-public schools — eight Catholic and one Lutheran — it works with.
“Nonpublic schools that choose to participate have the federal money flow to them, and it’s our responsibility to service their needs. We’ve always given them the money because that’s the federal law, but we’ve never looked at them for compliance. But now we have a plan in place and we’re ready to go next year.
“We’ll meet with those principals in either late August or early September. We’ll go over our whole plan with them. We will then meet with their people or people that we have in the schools in speech or specific disability content areas. We will go over compliance with them so they know how to write plans correctly.
“Since we have a plan in place, we will monitor what they’re doing. We’ve never done it before, but we will be starting next year.”
Spangler did not say why the district has never monitored nonpublic schools compliance in the past.
“I can’t answer for someone else,” she said. “I can just say the money is earmarked for them.”
Spangler said TPS has also developed a plan to monitor its out-of-district students.
“[ODE] didn’t look at that, but we have,” Spangler said. “We have a plan in place. We have a monthly calendar. I’ve already met with all those districts and let them know that we expect the same from them as we’re expecting from our teachers. They have the same ‘cheat sheet’ we’re using. We’re [reaching out] to them to make sure our students are receiving appropriate education whether they’re in Swanton, Anthony Wayne or wherever they go.”
Two areas in need of work
Spangler said although the current review reports that the district has done exactly as it was told, she believes TPS has two areas it needs to refine.
“One is ‘measurable goals,’ which is defined across the entire state,” Spangler said. “If you write three goals for a student, and two goals are compliant and one is not, then you are not compliant. All goals have to be met in order for the district to be compliant with that student. That’s one area we need to work on.
“The second area is ‘specially designed instruction.’ We need to make sure that we are designing instruction so a child can be successful.
“If I’ve taken a goal and I say, ‘If I work on this goal this amount of time, a child will be successful,’ the state is saying to us, ‘Make sure you are putting in that time and that you have data to reflect that it is working.’
“If the goal says that I’m going to come into the classroom and work with you 10 minutes a day, I have to do that. Or if I’m going to pull you out 10 minutes a day, I have to do that.
“‘Specially designed instruction’ has to make sure that I know how a child’s going to be successful. For instance, if I know in a general ed classroom, by lecturing, a child doesn’t get it, but by coming to me and we do hands-on, a child does get it, I need to write that down so when I hand the IEP off to you, and you teach it the same way I’m teaching it, the child will be successful.”
Page said she does not believe that teaching special education students should focus on the ability to follow rules as measured by ODE’s compliance review.
“Everybody in the district — period — should have to read the ‘Parent’s Guide to IDEA’ (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act). Everybody should be trained: the special education staff, teachers, bus drivers, principals, aides, food service workers. Anyone who comes in contact with a student with a disability, regardless of what the disability is, needs to know what’s on that IEP.”
Spangler acknowledges that TPS has not always been as successful as it would like to have been in servicing all of its special education students.
“However, we’re trying to be transparent,” Spangler said. “I’m asking parents to call me. I’m telling supervisors to follow up with parents if there’s a problem. We’re trying to have a continuum of services in our buildings so a child can get the correct service they need.
“A continuum of services means every child starts out in general ed. Then, according to needs, you break off to where the child needs more support. A child might spend the whole day in general ed with a teacher coming in and supporting him. Or the child may need go out of the general ed classroom into a resource room to get extra help in math and language arts. Or he may not be able to be in the general ed classroom at all. He may need to be in a self-contained classroom learning his subject matter.”
Spangler said she meets with the advocate groups The Ability Center of Greater Toledo, Legal Aid of Western Ohio, Lucas County Children Services and Medical Leadership Partnership for Children so those agencies can tell her the district’s areas of weaknesses.
“That’s been very beneficial because we’re reaching out for that relationship,” Spangler said. “I think that’s what it takes. This is a community. We need to work together.”