State review of special ed cites 13 issues, draws committee differences

4-3 vote asks Bodie to report back in December

A state review of the Arlington public schools' special-education program drew considerable discussion and a 4-3 vote on a motion to address 13 areas of noncompliance at the Sept. 14 School Committee meeting.

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Members differed about the seriousness of the issues the state raised in its first review since 2011, directing the superintendent to investigate the causes of the violations and report back in December.

Highlighting the differing views about the state Coordinated Program Review were concerns from member Len Kardon about why issues continued to arise and Chairman Jeff Thielman, who cited much progress in the last 12 years.

Special Education Director Alison Elmer began her report by explaining that the focus of her presentation will be solely on the evaluation of the special-education program, not civil rights or English Language Education -- sections which will be discussed at a later date. Furthermore, the state evaluation of special education reviewed only the administrative and reporting aspects of the program, not the quality of instruction.

13 areas of noncompliance

The state found 13 areas of noncompliance, each rated as "partially implemented," using six possible rating: commendable, implemented, partially implemented, implemented in progress, not implemented and not applicable. The process of evaluation is described here >>  See the specific areas in which the town's public schools were found noncompliant along with the proposed corrective plan

Elmer presented slides of each noncompliance and her proposed corrective action. She explained that this review found 13 areas of noncompliance, while the 2011 review found 21 areas.  She called them technical issues and did not affect the quality of education received by students in the program, an issue some committee members later challenged.

During her presentation, Elmer several committee members asked about specific points. When Elmer said the state objected to the lack of a written evaluation by a team member who at the last minute could not make the meeting, member Bill Hayner asked why all members of a team would not have written comments before the meeting was held. He suggested: "Going forward [the team members] have written materials prepared before the meeting."

Another shortcoming state investigators cited: Some teams did not answer yes or no on the need for summer instruction. Kardon pointed out that is was a prime example of "where a technical requirement can have a real impact" on a student.

Bodie calle issue 'technical'

Superintendent Kathleen Bodie replied that this was "a technical, not a service issue," because of the great increase in the number of students given summer instruction, which shows that students are able to access this program. Kardon responded that some students might not be getting the services they need. He added he "was not sure people were getting it."

Next, Elmer said some students at Dallin and Brackett were not receiving compensatory services at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. The students missed these services because of unavoidable staffing problems: At the last minute, a staff member quit; another was hired and then decided not to start work; and finally one was hired and began giving services in October.

Committee Vice Chair Kirsi Allison-Ampe expressed concern that, although there was some attempt to "catch up" on the lost services, it "was not the same" as receiving these services consistently. She said she "was more concerned about the gap when the kids were not getting services at all."

Allison-Ampe expressed a more general problem with this year's special-education evaluation: that the same mistakes have been made following earlier evaluations. "[W]hat concerns me is that the issues are not new, different or complicated," she said. "Why are we still making these mistakes?" Expressing her frustration, she continued by reporting that she hears these complaints for parents and students, and it "seems very clear what needs to be happening."

'What do you need?'

Member Paul Schlichtman took another tack, asking Elmer, "What do you need from us?" She replied that the program had excellent teachers, and they needed the committee's support. Bodie echoed Elmer's concern: "[W]hat fatigues teachers the most" was the requirements for technical compliance; "what teachers want to know is how to help more."

Thielman, emphasizing how much the program had improved, contributed his experience with the 2005 report. He called it "so bad we had to go to a meeting" with the state evaluators.

"[W]e are improving," Elmer concurred. In partial explanation for this year's evaluation, she cited the large caseloads of team chairs. One team leader, she said, had 89 cases. In addition, an individual education plan case can require 30 pages of documentation. That is why "mistakes are made," she said.

Responding to Elmer's defense of the program, Hayner said, "If we need more staffing, we need to hear about it."

Strongest criticism

Kardon expressed the strongest criticism. After collecting data about the number of noncompliance areas of other towns -- see the list >> -- he said the average number of negative findings for other towns was four, while Arlington's was 13. Moreover, he reported that only one school district had more noncompliance findings than Arlington.

How, he asked rhetorically, can we explain this difference with other school districts? He was perplexed as to "Why we cannot build a culture of compliance."

Following his comparison with other districts, he presented the following motion:

The superintendent is directed to investigate the root causes for the high number of issues identified in the Coordinated Program Review and report back to the committee in 90 days regarding the results of the investigation and any corrective measures to be undertaken.

Motion questioned

In response to the motion, member Cindy Starks asked: "How are we going to get anything different from the detailed report we just got? Why do we need the motion?"

Kardon countered with another question: "Why do all of the other districts have better performance?" He speculated that it could be staffing or maybe training.

Schlichtman agreed that in 2005, there were substantial issues, but now "a lot of this is doting the i's or crossing the t's." Instead of the motion, he proposed that the committee wait until the state responds to the proposed corrections in the spring, and then have a discussion to see "if we are providing resources to do better."

Kardon mused: "Why is it every other district can cross the "t's and dot the i's, but we can't? And why in general are we not able to meet compliance?"

Bodie defended the program, first responding, "We have spent a fair amount of time with training over the last few years." Moreover, she described new investment in software to support a system of reminders to team leaders. She was emphatic: "[W]e are working on compliance issues."

Hayner does not want to wait

In response to Schlichtman's proposal to wait until the state response to the corrective-actions proposal, Hayner said he did not want to wait until May. Instead, he wanted "to get this information upfront, because we are we are starting our budget process. If the basic issue is staffing we need to know."

Following Hayner, Elmer explained that by checking in with other districts, she found that an "evaluator effect" affected the scoring process. Districts that appeared to meet similar criteria were found in compliance, while Arlington was not. Consequently, she asked that the committee to take into consideration the "subjectivity of the review team."

Thielman called for a vote on Kardon's motion, which passed 4 to 3: Kardon, Hayner, Allison-Ampe and Jennifer Susse voted yes; Thielman, Schlichtman and Stark voted no.

Bodie is to report back to the committee at its December meeting.


Presentation at Sept. 14 meeting

Sept. 11, 2011: Special-ed parents offer analysis to state review


This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Jo Anne Preston was published Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.