Friday, September 11, 2015

Special Education Referrals in a Westchester School District

I spoke with the lead special education administrator of a school district in Westchester County, New York, Kristie. It was the first week of school and she was pressed for time, so one of the strong impressions the conversation left me with, in addition to her obvious professionalism, was how much specialized jargon was flowing off her tongue. Since it’s all new to me, I was scrambling to keep up as she gave me a quick introduction into how special education is a highly regulated, highly organized system with crucial accountabilities.

A student may be identified for special education referral either by the parents or by school staff, and these two paths each have their own requirements. In either case, the staff takes an individualized approach to determine what sort of supports they can build appropriate for the student.

Much of what happens in the referral process is mandated by state and federal law. For example, the Response to Interventions (RTI) spells out a clear process to follow, beginning with collecting data that would demonstrate initial eligibility. The RTI process will move the student into one of three tiers. But Kristie made clear to me that the state does not dictate how they intervene, such as what courses they provide. For example, the district has a special resource room for intake called Bridges, which is not based on any legal requirement, but is modelled on their own choices of best practices.

And this goes some way to explaining the school administration's directive for special education. The administrators make it their business to continually analyze their continuum of services, from the least restrictive, most inclusive ways available to other approaches as needed. This is a well-resourced district with the capacity to keep an eye open for innovations they can add, in a field that seems to be in a state of ongoing development, with a steady stream of new research, assistive technologies, and piloting methodologies.

If the student is “classified” as a result of the referral, s/he is then under the responsibility of the Committee on Special Education (CSE) and is given case manager. The whole process of evaluations and committee reviews ensues. If not, their case is sent back to what they call the “building level,” meaning the team of educators in the student’s school building, who manage this student along with all the others, though one presumes with a closer, more specialized level of attention.
Students identified for special education are provided with a continuum of services at the elementary and secondary levels, ranging from teacher-direct interventions to out-of-district placement if necessary. The CSE team determines what’s appropriate in each case, including social-emotional developmental needs, and develops a plan to suit.

Parents are deeply involved. If the referral is initiated from within the school, parents are informed early and kept aware throughout the process. Either way, once a student is classified, consultations with parents are a constant feature, with weekly conversations at a minimum between a learning specialist or psychologist and the parent, and a robust online portal providing the parent with extensive access including real-time tools.

I was curious about the social-emotional component of a special education student’s predicament, whatever their particular needs may be. The philosophy overall is to take a student-centered approach, in which students take responsibility for their own learning and development to the maximum extent. They seek to enable student activity that is less directed by the teacher, more self-directed.

I then spoke to two veteran high school teachers from the same district. When I asked Dean and Renee how they identify a student for special education, it became apparent that that rarely happens at the high school level – almost always, the referral will already have been made in earlier grades. So students tend to come under their supervision already under the management of the CSE. The teachers then tend to jump into an RTI process that is already well defined.

As they get more involved in the case, they observe actively, and when they notice things, they bring their findings to the team meetings to talk about it as a group. They then try approaches in the classroom that they have reason to expect to be of value. They then collect data and go through several cycles of reporting and adjusting. When something isn’t working, this triggers them to try a different level of intervention, and this escalation may continue as long as necessary.

The teachers know a student is struggling when they see poor reading comprehension; a student who is grades below age in reading & writing; and obvious problems with math comprehension. They most often attribute these observed qualities to slow mental processing and weak memory. They recognize that there are many causes of these conditions – neurological, hearing impairment, learning difficulties, and often physical causes.

On the subject of emotional handicaps, I thought both teachers initially indicated that they tend to stay away from handling that. When I sought a further explanation, they clarified that it’s not that such cases go untouched, but rather that emotionally fragile kids are handled more as the special province of psychological staff, such as clinicians who conduct psychological testing and work directly on conditions like anxiety. They also noted that in their experiences, the attempt is made to address such conditions earlier, in middle school.

I asked whether referrals ever seem to come as a surprise to the parents. Again, this is not a process these teachers handle much, but they think it rarely comes as much of a surprise to parents of student at the high school level.

When I asked whether alternate methods of instruction are tried before referring the student for special education, the answer I got, which really referred to the RTI, indicated to me that at the age they’re teaching, students are pretty clearly segregated already in the minds of the teachers into those who have been classified in special education and those not. They did describe how highly individualized the RTI approach is for each student. It might involve calling the parent once a week, making a homework schedule, giving the kid more attention if s/he’s having hard time reading. Their perspectives seemed to be very much formed by the RTI process, with its weekly committee meetings examining different cases; a large reference list of different interventions depending on the student; and an iterative process of the committee recommending an intervention, the teacher and student trying it, and reporting back.

What I have reported here may not be news to the reader, but for me, as I have not been involved in any of this before, it was quite an education into both the formal process and the perspectives and approaches of teaching and administrative staff concerning special education. Attending to special needs has to be a significant chunk of a teacher’s time, and the collaborative accountability is quite intensive. I think that a teacher has to adopt a really positive attitude about his/her contribution to the student’s growth to incorporate this special attention seamlessly into his/her complete range of responsibilities. 

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