Administrators planning changes in special ed program
Darien High School administrators are weighing some big changes on how they provide instruction to special education students and analyze their own success doing so.
On Tuesday night, High School Principal Ellen Dunn and interim Assistant Superintendent of Special Education and Student Services Deborah Farber outlined some of the early changes for the town's Board of Education, including more clearly defining specific functions for positions involved in handling students with special needs, among them case managers, co-teachers, learning center and paraprofessional aides who teach special education students.
The changes are being considered for the 2016-2017 school year, if approved by district leaders.
"The process requires that we follow a certain set of requirements engaging staff, students and parents in that process and communication with all the key stakeholders in our community and an evaluation of the program as it unfolds and also the outcomes for our students," Dunn said.
A new formalized plan would encourage better communication between instructors, parents and students to make special education programs more supportive and improve the ability of parents to advocate their students, Dunn said.
Another aspect of the proposal would revamp the offerings of learning centers at the high school used by special education students to ensure enough individualized attention and developing assistance with life skills, such as time management, for the students involved, Farber said.
"We're trying to move the focus away from homework completion only to doing some living lessons and modules in things like executive function, time management, planning," Farber said. "We'll start some of these things at the very end of June and continue into the summer in terms of staff development to create the individual units."
The collaborative planning effort between the board, the district, and school follows a recent district review that showed students with learning disabilities made up a disproportionate part of the school's 200-level classes, and enrollment in the classes "may result in isolation of students with disabilities with their typically developing peers."
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Classes at the high school are tiered in 200-, 300- and 400-level.
Whether the changes implemented will mirror the rough plan being considered is uncertain, because additional analysis is needed to determine the best way to restructure the programs, Farber said.
A rough draft of new guidelines for communicating more effectively with faculty, parents, and students is being completed by Special Education chairman John Verre, but needs to be reviewed by the central office administration, and presumably incoming superintendent Dan Brenner, who is retiring as superintendent of schools in Roslyn, N.Y.
Farber said another area where improvement is possible is case management, where administrators are hoping to keep students assigned to the same counselor for their entire high school career. Presently, special education students can move between case managers from year to year.
The managers keep track of educational issues and the structure of a given student's individual education plan, Farber said.
In the coming school year, incoming ninth-graders will be assigned to case managers who will track them all through high school, Farber said.
"Switching case managers from year to year is not the best plan," Farber said. "We also need to balance our case loads more evenly among the case managers so we can really expect they are able to communicate with teachers."
Farber said a case manager with 18 students can be dealing with 50 or 60 different teachers when tracking a student's progress.
Board of Education Chairman Elizabeth Hagerty Ross said if the evaluation shows the school needs more case managers, the board wants to know.
"This is something we have to get right for the kids and if that means more personnel, then we can look at that," she said.
Hagerty Ross said she also was concerned about how regular teachers would communicate effectively any needs to assure students would get additional help in specific areas, whether through the learning centers or working with a case manager.
"The service delivery is really in the regular ed classroom and done by regular ed teachers," Hagerty Ross said. "How does that get worked into the proposal?"
Farber replied: "I think the case managers would be on top of that and where it is most appropriate to receive that instruction."
Interim Superintendent Dr. Lynne Pierson said Hagerty Ross' question highlighted the type of issue that can be addressed by better defining the roles that classroom teachers, case managers, and other personnel, like paraprofessional aides, play in the process.
"Sometimes I think we fail to make it clear to our staff what the expectations are," Pierson said. "Most people are willing to do what you qask them to do if they know what they are asked to do. Sometimes that falls off the rails a little bit if we aren't clear in saying, `You're a teacher in a learning center this is your job, and these are the elements of your job, carefully explained.' "