Geneva Oatman, director of special services for School District 65, reported on the accomplishments of the District in educating students with disabilities in a Special Services Report presented to the Board in a five-hour meeting on May 12 that was attended by about 90 parents.
She said that the District had implemented many of the recommendations made by an outside consultant, Dr. Cassandra Cole, following an analysis of the District’s special education program in 2002; that the District has addressed areas of noncompliance identified by the State Board of Education in a June 2006 report; and that the District has implemented other initiatives, including “Unified Delivery of Instruction” and “Response to Intervention.”
“We have many things to celebrate,” she said. “We are proud of our success and remain committed to the success of students with disabilities.”
At the May 12 meeting and at a prior Board meeting, 15 parents voiced concerns about how the District was educating children with disabilities. Parents said stability was important for students with a disability, and the District should not transfer students with disabilities to new schools, that the District should improve transitions of students to the middle schools and the high school, that the District was resistant to providing needed services to students and other issues.
Special Education Services
Under federal law, special education services must be provided to students classified as having one of 13 different disabling conditions. Data presented by Ms. Oatman shows that 90 percent of District 65’s students classified as having a disability have one of the five following disabilities: speech/ language impairment (40%); specific learning disability (31%); emotional disability (9%); cognitive disability (6%); or autism (4%).
This year, District 65 has a total of 1,238 students in the pre-K through eighth-grade levels classified as having a disability. Nineteen percent of the District’s students have a disability, Ms. Oatman said. The statewide average is 15%.
“Special education is specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of students with a disability,” said Ms. Oatman. An Individual Education Plan (IEP) is prepared for each student with a disability. Parents are entitled to participate in the process. The IEP sets out the child’s strengths and weaknesses; it sets out goals and short-term objectives; it provides for appropriate special education services; and it provides for an appropriate educational placement. as determined by the IEP team based upon the students’ identified needs. The placement decision is the last decision made in forming the IEP.
Ms. Oatman said federal regulations mandate that students with disabilities be educated “with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate,” in other words, the least restrictive environment. In selecting the least restrictive environment, the general education classroom, with support and modifications, must be the first placement option considered. The options include:
General Education with consultation and accommodations.
General Education with direct Special Education in the classroom, using flexible grouping strategies and co-teaching.
General Education with direct Special Education support outside the classroom.
Special classroom settings, enrolling only students with disabilities, and having groups based upon the similarity of educational needs.
Separate schools, with tuition paid for by the District.
According to the Special Services Report, the percentage of students receiving special education services outside of the general education classroom 21% of the time or less and between 21-60% of the time has remained relatively constant in the last three years. About 58% of the District’s IEP students are educated less than 21% of the time outside the general education classroom, and about 17% are educated outside the general education classroom between 21% and 59% of the time. These are both within targets set by the State Board of Education, said Ms. Oatman.
The major shifts have been a decrease – from 12% to 3% – in the percentage of students assigned to a separate educational facility outside the District and an increase in the percentage of students educated more than 60% of the time outside the general education classroom. Ms. Oatman said the District exceeds the State’s target for students educated in a separate facility, when Rice and Park Schools are taken into account.
Unified Delivery of Instruction
“Our ideas for a Unified Delivery of Instruction are becoming a reality,” said Ms. Oatman. Under the initiative, which Dr. Murphy has said is a “culture change” for the District, the entire school staff takes “collective responsibility” for students with a disability. The District has been providing staff development to increase the capacity of general education teachers to address the needs of students with a disability in the general classroom and to increase the capacity of special education staff to teach the general education curriculum.
The District is also in the process of implementing a State mandated initiative “Response to Intervention.” Under this initiative the District uses its collective resources to intervene early and provide appropriate interventions and supports to prevent learning and behavioral problems from becoming larger issues. Under this model, staff not only analyzes “what has been working for a child, but also what has not been working for a child,” and appropriate adjustments in the interventions should be made.
“The thing we’re most proud of is that since 2003, test scores for students with disabilities in District 65 have increased 96% in reading and 91% in math,” said Ms. Oatman.
A student’s IEP team decides how a student will participate in the State’s assessment program. Students may take the Illinois Standard Assessment Test (ISAT), with or without accommodations as determined by the IEP team. If the team decides the ISAT is not appropriate for a particular student, the student will take the Illinois Alternate Assessment (IAA).
The accompanying table shows the percentage of students with an IEP in District 65 and in the State who met or exceeded standards on the 2003 and the 2007 ISATs for the grade level indicated. While there have been substantial increases in both District 65 and the State, the increases in the District have outpaced the increases for the State.
A higher percentage of the District’s minority students receive special education services than white students: 21% of the District’s black students, 18% of its Hispanic students, and 11% of its white students receive special education services.
In the last two years, the Illinois State Board of Education determined that the District had a disproportionate number of black students categorized as having an emotional disability. This year, the ISBE determined that the District had a disproportionate number of white students classified as having autism. After reviewing the District’s self-assessments, the ISBE determined that neither disproportionality was due to inappropriate identification.
Board president Mary Erickson said, “A lot has been done; it’s been a very complex job. We want to support the administration to continue to move forward.”
Ms. Oatman said the administration’s immediate priorities include incorporating best practices to increase access to the general education curriculum, utilizing an automated IEP system to increase compliance with State and Federal regulations, and providing professional development that enhances outcomes for students with disabilities.
Three Board members emphasized the importance of maintaining stability for students with disabilities and keeping special education programs at the same schools, so students would not need to transfer schools to continue to receive special education services. The Board asked Dr. Murphy to notify them when a special education program was going to be moved.
Mary Rita Luecke said Dr. Cole analyzed the District’s special education program five years ago, and suggested she be retained to perform an updated analysis. Other Board members suggested that the District improve communication with parents. Former Board member Jonathon Baum suggested in the public comment section that the staff maintain data showing whether special education services provided in each student’s IEP was being provided. Perhaps due to the midnight hour, the Board did not reach a decision on these issues.