Missing data show more special ed flaws

A flood of information has drowned a once-parched parent community that is now trying to unravel an assortment of issues that could have harmed the town’s most vulnerable students, and perhaps also, its most creative.

Among the problems pointed out in investigator Sue Gamm’s 80-page report is a lack of data on the interventions used by Darien Schools to help children who begin to struggle in school. These interventions, known as scientific resource-based intervention, or SRBI, have been criticized by many parents who claim the district has been using it to delay evaluating a child for special education services.

While this delay happens, children can fall farther behind, experts have said, which could set them up for behavior problems. It is illegal for a school district to use SRBI to delay services. These children could then be eligible for compensatory services, which would likely be more expensive than if the district initially obeyed the law. Frugality, ironically, was the primary reason the district prevented students from receiving special education services, Gamm reported.

One parent told The Darien Times that her child was repeatedly entered and exited SRBI over the course of two school years. During that time her child’s education faltered, she said. The state recommends children spend no longer than eight to 20 weeks receiving SRBI, which is composed of three tiers, with each ascending tier intended to provide increasingly individualized instruction.

Yet Darien Schools does not track how long children are in SRBI. The Darien Times asked former Superintendent Steve Falcone for information on how long students were spending in each tier, but Falcone replied, “We do not track SRBI data in the format requested.”

While investigating the schools, Gamm requested information on how many students were receiving services in tiers two and three, but noted that this “data was not provided.” Instead, Gamm used data provided by The Darien Times in her report, which obtained the number of students in SRBI over the last five years through an earlier Freedom of Information Act request.

Gamm also found that the district does not have a manual to assist staff with SRBI implementation. The investigator’s survey found that 45% of staff and 55% of parents felt that they were not provided adequate information on the SRBI process. An additional 51% of staff indicated the district did not provide clear guidelines to them to help them consider if a child was making progress within a reasonable amount of time.

A draft SRBI manual was created in 2010 by Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent of elementary education. Gamm was not given this manual, but found it while performing a Google search. According to Gamm, Pandolfo told her that “there is no specified reporting system; rather it is viewed as an ‘ongoing dialogue’” with parents.

Pandolfo “explained that communication with parents in Darien is so common that it does not need to be specified,” Gamm continued.

However, the manual requests that staff only share “very general information” with parents on their child’s progress, and that staff should “refrain from identifying students by tier.” Gamm notes that the “provision of such general information to parents is counter to advice provided by” the state Department of Education, which urges districts to give parents data “in both graphic and numerical formats they can understand easily and should elicit families’ views about the student’s progress or lack thereof.”

“Families should feel they are part of, not only the recipients of, the monitoring of a student’s progress,” the state wrote in its Guidelines for Identifying Children with Learning Disabilities document.

One of the key findings of Gamm’s investigation was that Darien engaged in “unlawful meaningful parental involvement,” which means that parents’ rights to be involved with their children’s education were illegally restricted by the administration.

Gamm pointed out that Darien’s lack of data collection and the nonexistent SRBI procedural manual makes it difficult to know if SRBI is working at all.

“In the absence of these and other practices, parents perceive their children are ‘lingering’ in the SRBI process,” Gamm wrote. “As stated by one elementary school principal, ‘parents want information.’ This is especially true when parents believe their children are struggling in school, and they want to ensure they are making progress.”

History

The SRBI system, which in other states is known as response to intervention, or RTI, was developed nationwide to address the rising costs of special education and the increasing number of students being identified as having a specific learning disability, or LD. The National Center for Learning Disabilities defines LD as “a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store and respond to information.” It is one of 12 disability categories under which Connecticut children between 6 and 21 can receive services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

More children receive special ed services under the LD designation than any other disability category, according to federal data. While children can have more than one disability, districts are asked to categorize children under the disability “which is most indicative of the student’s primary disability,” writes the state’s Bureau of Special Education Programs.

In 2012-13, during the tenure of special education Director Deirdre Osypuk, the percentage of students who exited SRBI dropped 13% from the previous year, from 53% to 40%. Some parents say this is further evidence that services were delayed to more children under Osypuk’s administration than in previous years. However, the percentage exited under Osypuk closely resembled the percentages from earlier years, at 42% and 41%. Osypuk was placed on paid administrative leave in mid-June, after allegations surfaced that she led a district-wide campaign to deny, delay and restrict services to children with special needs while ignoring and misleading parents.

The problem of using SRBI to delay special ed services has been on the radar since the last update of the IDEA in 2004. While it was created to curb the “wait-to-fail” method that many local school districts had used for decades to identify children with special needs, an unintended consequence of RTI was that districts could further delay providing services by telling parents that their children were receiving RTI, according to Jose Martín, a special education lawyer from Texas.

“Some parents may feel that participating in the RTI process ultimately led to a delay in having special education services provided to their children and may attempt to seek legal redress in the form of compensatory services,” Martín wrote for the RTI Action Network.

In 2011, this concern reached the federal government, sparking a memorandum from the Office of Special Education Programs to state directors of special education addressing allegations that some school districts “may be using RTI to delay or deny a timely evaluation to determine if a child is a child with a disability and, therefore, eligible [for] special education…”

“States and [school districts] have an obligation to ensure that evaluations of children suspected of having a disability are not delayed or denied because of implementation of an RTI strategy,” wrote Melody Musgrove, OSEP director.

Federal law requires districts evaluate a child within 60 days of a parent’s consent to evaluate to determine if special education services are necessary. Connecticut law further tightens the timeline to 30 days.

Pete Wright, a special education attorney from Virginia, emphasized that a request for evaluation from a parent is separate from consent, which is the legal term that starts the 30-day clock for an evaluation. Wright advises parents to send the district a written consent for an evaluation along with the initial request to ensure the district performs a timely evaluation.

In less-affluent towns, such as Bridgeport and Hartford, the problems are reversed. Many parents refuse to consent to an evaluation due to the stigma attached to special education, according to Kathryn Meyer, a director at the Center for Children’s Advocacy. This can exacerbate the behavior problems stemming from delayed services. Also, minority students and those on free or reduced lunch are also disproportionately represented in special education, according to federal data, and poor school districts often have trouble providing the most basic special services.

Further issues

Margie Gillis, project director at the Haskins Literacy Initiative at Yale University, helped create the state’s framework for SRBI, and admitted that the program’s implementation appears better on paper than in practice.

“It’s not happening in this country,” Gillis said, referring to interventions that are truly based on a scientific framework. “I don’t think people understand what it is and how to do it.”

Many districts create one-size-fits-all SRBI models that are not tied to specific data and are not specific to a child’s needs, Gillis said. Another problem districts face is a lack of resources to implement SRBI with fidelity.

However, since Darien is a district rich in both human and monetary resources, implementing SRBI as Gillis and others designed it should not be a problem, many parents have pointed out.

There is also confusion between some as to the actual role SRBI plays in its relationship to identifying children with a specific learning disability, or LD. While SRBI was developed to reduce the number of kids identified with LD, state information tells a different story.

The State Educational Resource Center, a state-funded non-profit professional development agency, conducted a conference for teacher aides in 2009 about their role in SRBI. The center created a frequently asked questions list after the conference, with one question being: “Will SRBI result in less students being identified as learning disabled?”

The answer given: “That is not the intent of SRBI. As a result of SRBI, a decrease may or may not occur.”

It’s unclear what’s happened in Darien with children identified with LD. Between 1% and 2% of children receiving SRBI during the last four years were eventually identified as having LD, according to district information. It’s unclear how long these children spent in SRBI before they were identified, as Darien does not track these data.

To improve accountability with SRBI, Gillis said she’d like to see SRBI become law, instead of being a mere recommendation.

“I think it’s the only way we’re going to change the system,” she said. “There has to be accountability, otherwise people aren’t going to do the right thing. Part of it is they don’t know the right thing, or [they are] trying to save money.”

But not everyone thinks that SRBI should become a state mandate. Nancy Prescott, executive director of the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center, a state-funded agency that assists parents of children with special needs, said the state is already focused on other initiatives that seem to drown out SRBI.

“I don’t know if [mandating SRBI] will bring about the desired effect,” Prescott told The Darien Times. “I think somehow, if there could be a stronger message from the state that we expect you to be doing this” would help improve SRBI implementation.

SRBI is not a special education program, since any general education teacher with a certain expertise can implement it. However, federal special education money under the State Personnel Development Grants Program has gone to the state to provide professional development for teachers on SRBI practices.

“It makes sense, theoretically, to have general education teachers know about special education,” Prescott said.

SRBI and dyslexia

Roughly 80% of children categorized as LD have reading problems, according to state data. Many of these children are likely dyslexic, however the state does not recognize dyslexia as a specific disability under which children can receive special education services.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, has been actively lobbying Congress to create a law that defines dyslexia and indicates how various treatments compare to each other.

“The gap isn’t between our knowledge and needing to have more knowledge,” Shaywitz told The Times. “The gap is having the knowledge and acting on it. We’re not acting on it.”

Legislators have been listening. In 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives created the Bipartisan Congressional Dyslexia Caucus to educate other congressmen and advance policies “that break down barriers faced by dyslexics.”

“Prompted by concerns about our children and our constituents’ children, we set out to learn as much as we could about dyslexia and were amazed at how much is known and yet, far too often, not incorporated into policy,” wrote congressmen Bill Cassidy and Pete Stark on the caucus’s website.

People with dyslexia have difficulty pulling apart the sounds of words, which means learning to read and learning a foreign language can be difficult. It is not an intellectual disability. Additionally, an increasing amount of evidence shows that the dyslexic brain has distinct advantages that enable it to perceive the world differently.

Albert Einstein was known to be dyslexic, as was author John Irving and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy.

Yet many school districts fail to understand dyslexia and all its intricacies, Shaywitz said. And, even though Connecticut’s reading legislation is “some of the best in the country,” there has been no enforcement of the law or accountability for those who don’t follow it, according to Gillis.

Critics of Darien’s special education program have pointed to a flawed reading curriculum that doesn’t focus enough time on phonics, which is the study of the sounds of letters and various combinations. Earlier this year, the person who oversaw Darien’s SRBI program, Antoinette Fornshell, resigned to take a higher-paying position with Greenwich Public Schools. Currently, the state does not have a contact person for Darien for the position of SRBI coordinator.

Others who have been involved with SRBI include director Osypuk, assistant superintendent Pandolfo, and Liz Wesolowski, assistant director of elementary special education. Many parents have cited all three women as part of the problem with SRBI and special education.

In a New York Times op-ed, doctor and author Blake Charlton recalled how enlightening and confusing it was to learn that his dyslexia was not a burden, but a blessing.

“I believe that scientific evidence and social observation will continue to show that defining dyslexia based solely on its weaknesses is inaccurate and unjust, and places too grim a burden on young people receiving the diagnosis,” Charlton wrote. “A more precise definition of dyslexia would clearly identify the disabilities that go along with it, while recognizing the associated abilities as well.”

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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