YORK, Maine — A state Department of Education audit of special education programs in York schools identified compliance issues with federal law that require immediate action, according to a recent report. The audit also called for additional teacher training to improve “best practices” in the schools.
However, the report’s author indicated many school districts face similar problems and said everything state officials found was fixable.
“We see a whole range of districts really struggling and York is in a better place than them,” said Jan Breton, state director for special services. “But there are also reviewed schools that have been in a much better place than York has been.”
Superintendent Debra Dunn said the state recommendations “are all things we have been working on in the past year. I can tell you, this is where all my energy is going in my job.”
School Committee chairman Dwight Bardwell made clear he takes the report seriously and wants to see the district to deal with the findings swiftly and appropriately. He said he wants Dunn to “have the power to say [to teachers], ‘Look, we have to do this. It’s the right thing for the kids.’”
The report details results of two separate visits by DOE personnel in March. Dunn requested the audit after some parents of special education students filed complaints against the department. DOE officials randomly selected 16 cases of students to audit.
Most immediately, the school district must rectify several issues with regard to “individualized education plans,” or IEPs, developed each year for each child with special needs as required by federal law.
The district was found to be out of compliance in some areas. Among these: IEP meetings have been held without an administrator present; IEPs were missing required information on performance; IEP goals look “very similar from year to year and don’t always appear to be designed to show progress”; the school district needs to measure progress using “appropriate assessments” that reflect students’ grade level; the IEPs need to reflect a transition plan for students going from one school to another.
“We do expect these will be cleaned up and we have every confidence that they will comply,” Breton said. “But compliance is compliance. We will be following up to make sure this happens next year.”
Remaining recommendations center around “best practices” of the staff in dealing with special needs students and can be rectified with additional training. These include developing skills and programs for reading intervention beyond those currently offered; hiring a literacy professional to integrate students into mainstream classes more effectively; reviewing and making changes to the district’s “response to intervention” processes; and training staff to use data more effectively to monitor progress.
“These are important, but there’s going to need to be some teacher training around them. They can’t be accomplished quickly,” Breton said.
Bardwell said he heard from people who question if an independent audit should be conducted — an avenue Dunn investigated but concluded would be too expensive. He said money would be better spent on staff development.
“If we’re getting to the point where we still are having issues, then we can dig in,” he said. “But I feel very strongly that this report has recommendations that need to be dealt with now.”
Annie Gabbianelli, director of communications for the state education department, said school administrators appear to be taking the report to heart. “York has a strong desire to follow up on the report,” she said. “It’s really powerful for the district to embrace this.”
“They have issues that have to be addressed,” said Breton, “but ultimately, they’re going to be just fine.”