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Another special ed reboot 

Why can't the school district get this right?

Once again, the Rochester school district is under fire for failing the children who receive its special education services. And once again, district officials are considering another reform, one the school board could adopt this week.

Rochester's troubles with special education date back at least to 1981, when the Empire Justice Center filed a class action suit against the district, citing many of the same problems making the news now. As a result of the suit, the district operated under a court-supervised Consent Decree for more than two decades. That resulted in some improvement, apparently, but the problems continued after it ended.

Since then, the district has been cited repeatedly for failing to comply with state and federal regulations. A year ago a study known as the Elliott report – commissioned by the district itself – lambasted the district, noting the same problems Rochester had been criticized for previously. And earlier this year, the Empire Justice Center threatened to sue the district again.

Among the concerns: inappropriate classification of students; excessive suspensions; failure to provide services that are mandated by state and federal law; insufficient staff, particularly bilingual staff; poor training; poor accountability; poor communication with parents.

A particularly tragic development put the district's problems back in the news in March, when Trevyan Rowe, a 14-year-old special education student, walked away from school at the beginning of the school day and was found days later, drowned, in the Genesee River. Despite his not having attended any classes that day, two teachers had marked him present, and his mother wasn't notified that he hadn't arrived in school.

District officials and the school board were already focusing on the problems in special education at the time of Trevyan's death. In January, the school board created a Special Advisory Committee on Special Education to study the special education program and propose changes. Among its members were representatives of the special education program, parents and advocates of students with disabilities, and a representative from Empire Justice. New school board member Melanie Funchess, who is director of family engagement at the Mental Health Association, chairs the committee.

The committee presented its report to the school board earlier this month, recommending that the district commit to becoming "fully compliant with all its legal obligations" to students with disabilities within three years, with specific milestones and "specified consequences" for failure. At its meeting on Thursday, the board is likely to approve the recommendations, and then the district will embark on another attempt to improve its special education program.

Why, after repeated, blistering reports, can't the district get this right?

And it isn't lost on many district observers that the problems plaguing the special education program are symptomatic of the problems of the district as a whole.

In an interview last week, two of the school board's longest-serving members, board President Van White and Vice President Willa Powell, talked about the district's special education problems. White has been on the board for 11 1/2 years and has been president since 2014. Powell has served for 18 1/2 years. Both have been there as a series of superintendents and special education administrators have tried to improve the program and its services.

Both agreed that the district has failed repeatedly. But, they said, the district can do what it needs to do, despite the district's high poverty rate and large number of children from non-English-speaking homes.

Has lack of money – a frequent concern for urban districts – been the problem? "To a limited degree," Powell said, it has. Special education services are expensive, she said, and while the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was to have funded 40 percent of districts' special education costs, "right now, it delivers 16 percent," she said.

"The state kicks in something," Powell said, but not enough to cover the costs.

According to the Elliott report, however, Rochester spends almost $19,000 more per pupil than it spends on general education students. And it spends $4700 more per pupil in special education than Buffalo, Syracuse, and Yonkers do.

The report says Rochester ranks high among urban districts in the amount of special services and special personnel for special ed students.

And White added: "I'm not convinced that more money is the answer."

click to enlarge School board president Van White: "I think good, caring, intelligent, experienced people can sometimes get lost." - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • School board president Van White: "I think good, caring, intelligent, experienced people can sometimes get lost."

A major problem is that the district is woefully short of bilingual staff in its special education program. Dozens of different languages are spoken in Rochester students' homes. The majority of the non-English speaking families speak Spanish, and that number grew dramatically with the arrival of families from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Rochester isn't the only district with a bilingual staff shortage, though. If you're a special education teacher who speaks Spanish, said Van White, you can pretty much take your pick of jobs.

The result: too few teachers and other staff can communicate easily with students and family members, which makes it hard for students to keep up and for parents to communicate with the district about their children. And communication is crucial for parents of children with special needs.

White and Powell also cited a problem that outside assessments have highlighted: a lack of professional development for special ed staff. The district has a history of failing to train teachers and other staff adequately when it adopts new programs, new standards, and new curriculum.

Related to that are the frequent changes in the district: change in staff, from top to bottom; change in buildings; change in structure.

During Powell's tenure on the school board, the district has had five different superintendents; during White's, there've been four. The short stay is unusual in suburban districts, but it's the norm in many urban districts, and new superintendents frequently bring new approaches to education.

The district's Facilities Modernization Program – a years-long effort to upgrade school buildings – has also brought change, as students have been moved out of their schools into "swing space" in other buildings. That has added to the stress on special education staff, students, and families.

Another problem: The district classifies students as having disabilities at a higher rate than the national rate. That rate has been growing as the number of students in the district has dropped. And a disproportionately high percentage of students in special education are African American.

In addition, the district suspends African-American students at a higher rate than it does other students, and at a much higher rate than it suspends white students, according to the Elliott report. The same is true for black students in special education.

Both new school board member Melanie Funchess and long-time board member Cynthia Elliott have charged that racism plays a role in the district's special education failures.

Seventy-four percent of the district's teachers – and 82 percent of its special ed teachers – are white; 58 percent of the students are black, 28 percent Hispanic. Too many Rochester teachers don't understand and respect children of color, Funchess and Elliott have said, and don't feel comfortable with them.

Research does show a correlation between white teachers and referrals of black students to special education, White said. "But can a white teacher understand the challenges or what brilliance the child has?" he said. "Yes."

And, he said: "Less than 1 percent of teachers coming out of college are African-American males. We cannot think that we're going to fix this by automatically diversifying."

Powell and White also point to, in Powell's words, "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

click to enlarge School board vice president Willa Powell: The district suffers from "the soft bigotry of low expectations." - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • School board vice president Willa Powell: The district suffers from "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

District staff talk about a lack of resources, Powell said, about children with lead poisoning, about tests that aren't culturally appropriate, about the district's high poverty rate and parents' failure to make sure children are ready for school. While those challenges exist, however, they can lower staff's expectations of students.

White referred to a school he visited where he had been told he would be "blown away" by the quality of what was happening there. The reality: the students' test scores were abysmal.

"The bar of expectations is very low," he said, "and for special-needs children, it's even lower."

And, he said, "the accountability bar goes down with the expectations."

"I think good, caring, intelligent, experienced people can sometimes get lost," White said.

White pointed to Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams' emphasis on an "every child by face and name" philosophy. For too many people in the district, he said, students have become "digits."

School board members don't operate the schools; they hire superintendents to do that. Boards are responsible for making sure their superintendents do the job well. But the special education problem exposes the challenges that school boards face overseeing large, high-poverty districts where leadership changes frequently.

White gave this illustration, referring to the past two superintendents, Jean-Claude Brizard, who led the district from 2008 to 2011, and Bolgen Vargas, who led it from 2011 to 2015:

"Jean-Claude said, 'Special Education is a mess, and here's my plan.' Bolgen said, 'Special education is a mess, and here's my plan.' We ask the question of the superintendent, and he says: 'I'm on it. I'm on it.'"

And, White said, "There was clearly proof that they were working on it."

"It wasn't a situation where the superintendent wasn't doing anything," White said.

"We were hiring the experts," said White.

And yet what the experts were doing didn't improve things – or, in some cases did, but the people responsible for leading the special education program left and their successors didn't follow through. Or a new superintendent arrived and had new ideas.

And some of the attempts to reform the department may have made matters worse. The Elliott report notes that there had been a "reorganization of the office of special education almost yearly for the past several years."

"The way we did it before," White agreed, "did not produce results." But this time, he insisted several times during the interview, will be different.

For one thing, White said, Superintendent Barbara Deane-Wiliams' background is not just in education, it's in special education. And, White and Powell said, it's significant that the board's Special Advisory Committee on Special Education, with strong community input, is driving this latest reform effort. If the school board accepts the committee's recommendations, the district will

agree to a "legally enforceable Consent Decree" that will spell out specific consequences" for failing to meet its obligations within three years – "even if district senior leadership changes over the three years."

A Consent Decree may bring results that district leaders haven't been able to. Powell calls a decree "a sword of Damocles" that keeps people's attention focused. After the 1988 decree expired, she said, "the system atrophied."

In the end, though, success will still be up to the district's superintendent, its central office administrators, its special education staff, its principals, its teachers, its substitute teachers, its paraprofessionals. They will be the ones responsible for doing a better job educating thousands of the district's children, properly assessing whether each child needs special education services, providing those services, and providing professional development, encouragement, leadership, and inspiration to the staff who work with the children.

They will be responsible for adopting a philosophy of knowing "every child by face and name."

If the school board adopts the Special Advisory Committee's recommendations this week, the district will have three years to turn things around. And during that three years, the Facilities Modernization Program will continue, new curriculum and new state regulations could be introduced, new children will enter the system, the school board may get new members – and the district may get a new superintendent. Deane-Williams' three-year contract expires in August 2019.

If she leaves, it will be up to the school board to find and hire a replacement, and to ensure that the new superintendent continues the efforts under way under a new, board-imposed reform.

Tim Louis Macaluso contributed to the reporting for this article.

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