Teachers say special ed services went undelivered. Again.

Schedule problems last school year led to some children with disabilities missing services that were supposed to be given to them, according to results from a recent survey of teachers.

Last year, elementary students with disabilities remained on a five-day schedule while the rest of the students moved on to a six-day rotation. The children in special education stayed on a five-day plan because their previously-developed education plans were made based on that schedule. However, results from a survey designed to gain input on the schedule change showed that the schedule discrepancy could have harmed children with disabilities.

“Students have not been able to obtain the service hours outlined within their” individualized education plans because of the conflicting schedules, one teacher wrote.

“The six day rotation has affected student services in a negative way all year,” another person commented. “Something needs to change in order to provide special education services appropriately. Either go back to five days, or have staff start writing IEPs so that they follow a six-day rotation.”

Eighty-four survey respondents identified themselves as classroom teachers. This represented nearly 53% of all respondents. Another 42 identified themselves as “other specialist.” Seventeen said they were resource teachers, and eight people said they were administrators. Eight people also self-identified as speech and language teachers.

Twenty-nine respondents specifically cited the need to get special education schedules in-line with the regular education schedule. This was the most-often referenced comment in the survey by far. Some parents expressed similar concerns in a survey directed to them.

“It is impossible to serve the best interest of a child in special education when the [special education] schedule is on a five-day rotation and the [general education] is on a six-day schedule,” one parent wrote.

John Verre, the special education ombudsman tasked with cleaning up the special ed department, earlier said he was unsure if special education services were negatively affected by the schedule problem. He has not responded to requests for comment for further analysis on this issue.

Teachers, however, appeared overwhelmingly concerned that students suffered because of the schedule.

“This year was a nightmare of scheduling,” one teacher wrote. “Students were so confused because they had two or three different schedules they had to follow based on their services, and their activities. For example, if they are in band that is on a certain day of the week, but the time rotates, [then] that means they could miss [occupational therapy] because our [occupational therapist] is only here on that day every week… it was a disaster. The students never knew if they were coming or going, and they always felt like they were being pulled in so many different directions.”

Administrators told the Board of Education last year that the changeover to a six-day rotation was a necessary step to alleviate space problems at some elementary schools. The change took place without Board of Ed approval and was spearheaded by Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent. Pandolfo’s position has been eliminated from the coming school year as part of a district-wide restructuring, although it remains unclear if she will take any of the open administrative positions that are available to a tenured administrator.

On the survey, teachers were nearly equally split in terms of their approval or disapproval of the six-day rotation. Results showed that 36.4% agreed that new schedule had a positive impact on their schedule, while 35.7% disagreed. Slightly more than 21% were neutral.

When asked if the six-day benefited students, 38.8% agreed while 24.8% disagreed, and 36.4% were neutral.

This information appears to contradict a report Pandolfo delivered at the school board’s June 10 meeting. Pandolfo said that 80% of teachers agreed or were neutral in response the aforementioned statement. However, by adding the percentage who agreed with the percentage who were neutral, that number only equals 75%. It remains unclear if Pandolfo made a typographical or mathematical error or if she intentionally misrepresented the survey results. She has not responded to numerous attempts in the past for comment.

Lois Schneider, an education committee member on the Representative Town Meeting, pointed out the possibility for the data to be misleading because Pandolfo was including neutral responses in her numbers. Pandolfo 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.”

It could also be said that 54% of parents and 61% of teachers disagreed or were neutral with that statement.

The district administration is currently discussing whether to move the entire district back to a five-day schedule. Many teachers and parents urged the district to return to a five-day plan, although some indicated a preference for the six-day. One teacher offered a suggestion.

“Create a committee of teachers and school staff that are in the classrooms and working directly with students to create a schedule that works,” the teacher wrote. “This is an example of another top-down change without input.”

During the 2013-14 school year, which just ended, it appears that no administrators pointed out the six-day problem, because throughout the year, education plans were not developed based on the six-day for the upcoming year. At a recent school board meeting, ombudsman Verre could not provide an explanation as to why this happened.

This past year, education plans, or IEPs, were again developed based on the five-day schedule. These plans will be implemented in the 2014-15 school year. To change them to a six-day, each child’s planning and placement team would have to reconvene, which could take months to schedule and could use considerable resources, Verre said.

“The process will take about a year,” Verre said at the June 10 meeting. He addressed the need to start creating IEPs this year based on the six-day for the 2015-16 school year, although it remains unclear if the district will revert to a five-day.

Audit question

There is also concern that if some children with disabilities lost services during the 2013-14 school year, the district could be ripe for a lawsuit, especially since last year uncovered systemic violations to state and federal special education laws during the 2012-13 school year.

Additionally, the district is currently being audited by a forensic accounting firm that is examining whether Darien’s applications for special education expense reimbursements were accurate during the year Darien broke the law. While changes have been made to how Darien applies for this money, new questions have risen from the six-day rotation conundrum.

If children did not receive services outlined in their IEP, as some teachers claimed, but then the district applied for reimbursements based on services in the IEP and not services actually delivered, Darien’s application could once again be faulty. Verre did not immediately respond to questions seeking clarification on this matter.

The problems with the applications from the 2012-13 school year — the year being audited — are of a different nature. Attorney Sue Gamm found that some employees who no longer worked in Darien were listed as having provided services in town, and that a single teacher’s aide was listed as a full-time aide on several children’s education plans.

Jon Zagrodzky, the audit committee chairman of the Board of Finance, the entity overseeing the audit, maintains that the auditing firm, CohnReznick, has not found any evidence of fraudulent activity, and that the mistakes found appear instead to be the result of sloppy accounting.

Future concerns

Darien is currently searching for a new superintendent, a human resources director, a technology director, an elementary school principal, and an assistant superintendent to manage special education. Many administrators have left to take positions in other school districts.

The school board extended its search for a superintendent because it had not found any candidates it felt were best-suited for the position, according to board Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross. Interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson is slated to stay on for another year.

Some residents have pointed out that continuous negative media coverage has made it difficult for the district to attract high-quality administrators after last year’s disaster. However, according to at least on teacher, some teachers remain afraid to speak their mind and try to help find a solution, citing fear of the administration as the cause.

It “would be best in your surveys if you don’t ask such specific questions such as grade and position, because many staff members are afraid of retaliation if they actually speak up and voice something that is negative, but that they feel very strong about,” one person wrote in the survey.

Stories of district reprisals against teachers who uncovered special education problems or offered criticisms are not as frequent as last year, but concerns remain, some parents and teachers have said. Many residents have placed their trust in Verre and especially Pierson, who came to the district with vast international experience and has already established respect among some of the most vocal school critics.

Originally published in The Darien Times.



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