More violations? Special ed students left out of six-day rotation

Elementary children with disabilities in Darien will continue on a five-day schedule for the second consecutive year, despite the district transitioning all other children to a six-day rotation last year, according to a report at last week’s Board of Education meeting.

By keeping these children on a separate schedule from their peers, they have been forced to occasionally miss certain classes, such as physical education, art, music and library — classes known as “specials.” Parents said they were told to sign a release form last year to allow their children to miss these classes because the new six-day routine did not mesh with the individualized education plans, or IEPs, previously developed for a five-day schedule.

If the district wanted to move children with disabilities onto the six-day plan, each child’s IEP would need to have been reviewed and edited, which would have required many staff hours. John Verre, the special education ombudsman, said that no work was done last year to develop IEPs based on a six-day rotation to plan for the coming school year.

“The process would have to start this summer” to update IEPs for the 2015-16 school year, Verre told the Board of Education at its June 10 meeting. He also emphasized the importance to not have separate schedules for children with disabilities, many of whom take general education classes with their typically developing peers.

“Whatever schedule the general education population of the schools are on, the students with disabilities should be on the same schedule,” Verre said. If not, legal experts warn that the district could be discriminating against disabled students by not giving them the same opportunities as other kids. The district remains in a vulnerable position for a lawsuit after systemic violations to state and federal special education laws were uncovered last year.

Betsy Hagerty-Ross, school board chairman, expressed frustration with the path taken by the prior administration leadership.

“I guess I’m a little disappointed,” she said. “We were told this would work for special education children, and we’ve failed them again. I know I’m putting headlines in the paper, but we need to get this fixed.”

The district administration chose to implement the six-day plan last spring to ease the stress on the overcrowding facilities. This move was done without Board of Education approval at the request of Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent, who iterated that there “are no alternatives” to the six-day plan that would alleviate overcrowding.

Pandolfo echoed the chairman’s disappointment at the most recent meeting.

“It troubled me, too,” Pandolfo said.

Several Board of Ed members had expressed concern with the six-day plan before it was implemented, with only one member vocally in support of it. Pandolfo had noted that some time in specials would be lost to all children because of the new plan. However, at the recent school board meeting, she claimed that the six-day plan was implemented to actually increase specials time. She mentioned nothing of space problems prompting the change.

School board member Katie Stein noted this discrepancy.

“My understanding was that one of the driving forces was a facilities issue,” Stein said at the meeting. “I think we need to think about the realities of the space we have.”

Lois Schneider, a Representative Town Meeting member and long-time education committee member, added to Stein’s observation.

“If I remember correctly, the total time for P.E. and music was cut in the six-day schedule,” Schneider said.

Despite the board never voting on the change to a six-day plan, Pandolfo suggested that if the board wanted to move back to a five day, it would be “up to the board.”

“We were told last year that we didn’t have to make this decision,” Hagerty-Ross said. Many in attendance laughed, perhaps out of confusion, after Pandolfo said the board could make this decision, when last year, they were told it was up to the administration.

Some board members asked if the district failed to implement some children’s IEPs because of the scheduling problem. Ombudsman Verre said it did not appear that this was the case.

Despite the outcry from some school board members over this new problem, some parents felt this showing of incredulity was too little, too late, since recognition of a possible future problem with the scheduling discrepancy surfaced at least twice last year before the school year started, according to Katrina O’Connor, former co-chairman of the Darien Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, or SEPAC.

“We did bring our concerns to the administration and board… a year ago… regarding the discrepancy of implementing an IEP on a five day schedule in a six-day classroom schedule,” O’Connor told the school board.

At a SEPAC meeting last summer at which several school board members were present, SEPAC member Colleen Lyons addressed this problem but was told the district would handle it. The matter was addressed at a later SEPAC meeting that school board members also attended.

In an interview, Hagerty-Ross said she was unaware that this problem had already been discussed.

“I don’t remember them bringing — I remember a conversation in April and May where board members expressed concerns about special education students,” Hagerty-Ross told The Darien Times. The administration “had said they will work through on an individual basis on children’s needs… We were told it was being handled.”

Six-day survey

Pandolfo also reported that 86% of parents and 80% of teachers surveyed in May “agreed or were neutral in response to this statement: The six day rotation had a positive impact on the daily schedule of my child this year.”

However, as RTM member Schneider pointed out, if most of those responses were actually neutral, the presentation of this data could be misleading. According to the survey results obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Schneider’s instinct was correct.

Only 44% of parents agreed or strongly agreed with the aforementioned statement, the survey showed. More than 41% were neutral, nearly 8% disagreed, and more than 5% strongly disagreed. Another 2% indicated N/A. Staff input was not provided to The Times.

By looking at data in another direction, it could also be said that 54% of parents disagreed or were neutral with that statement.

O’Connor noted that she has two children on a six-day schedule and one on a five, and the survey did not account for this discrepancy.

“The six day worked marvelously for my general education children, but no so much marvelously for my child with an IEP,” O’Connor said.

Courtney Darby, co-chairman of SEPAC, also noted that children receiving the intervention program known as SRBI were also impacted by the six-day change.

SRBI “wasn’t carefully considered,” Darby told the board. Children getting SRBI usually get a little extra help with some subjects. They are not in special education, so they were on the six-day plan last year. However, as Darby noted, if a child was set for two days of SRBI services a week under a five-day plan, and was moved to the six-day plan, that would leave that child with fewer SRBI services throughout the year.

SRBI has been riddled with problems, and investigators found that there was no data to see if it was even working, and few teachers and parents understood the program. It was found that it might have been used to delay providing services to some children with disabilities.

School board member Christa McNamara urged the administration to go back to the drawing board and see if a five-day schedule would be better. Board member Heather Shea expressed reservation about the six-day.

“I’m still not convinced the six-day is the right way to do this,” Shea said at the meeting, noting that Pandolfo did not provide the number of teachers who responded to the survey.

“Somebody better convince me this is the right way to do this in the first place before we, I’m sorry, mess with these children’s IEPs,” she said.

Board member David Martens requested to see the survey results. Pandolfo said she would bring back all the “original arguments that we gave when the plan was approved.” The board never approved the six-day rotation.

Chairman Hagerty-Ross said she is glad the entire program is being reexamined under new eyes.

“In some aspects, it’s worked well, but there are trade-offs,” she told The Times. “We need to look and see if this is the right thing to do for our schools. This time the board will vote on it.”

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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