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Focus intensifies on RCSD's special education 

The Rochester City School District received some of the best news it's had in a while last week. Graduation rates rose to 51.9 percent for students who got their diploma in June 2017, the State Education Department said. That's a 4.2 percent increase from the year before. But that news was almost overshadowed by the district's ongoing problems concerning special education.

Theresa Wood, the district's special education chief, quit after being on the job for only about three months. And the Education Department's report said that graduation rates for students with disabilities and English Language Learners - though improving - still haven't even reached 40 percent.

Officials at the Children's Agenda, a non-profit that focuses on children and their developmental needs, say it's time for an independent watchdog to advocate for parents of children with special needs. The place to start, says Eamonn Scanlon, education policy analyst with the Children's Agenda, is the district's nearly $900 million annual budget. The Children's Agenda will be analyzing the district's budget for the 2018-2019 school year much the way it has Monroe County's budget every year since 2002, paying close attention to the district's special-education costs, Scanlon said in an interview late last week.

Special education costs are among the district's most significant for two reasons, Scanlon said. Educating students with disabilities is expensive: $29,000 per student, compared to $11,000 for each general education student. In addition, the district has a large number of students who are classified as needing special education: roughly 20 percent of its student population. And the number is growing, Scanlon said.

Despite the large amount of money the district spends on special education students, the results remain low, said Larry Marx, the Children's Agenda's CEO. Determining whether the budget is being spent on the right programs and helping parents understand what they are is essential, he said.

"We don't know if we're getting the bang for the buck," Marx said.

Though the Children's Agenda is still gathering data, one area of concern is the district's ability to have the right interventions available when students need them.

"A lot of the breakdown happens when students get off track," Scanlon said. A parent may see a change in their child, and suddenly the child isn't doing well in school, but it's hard to know who in the district to turn to for help and what resources are available, he said.

Misclassification is also big concern. A study commissioned last year by Rochester Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams raised concerns about whether some students were being incorrectly directed into special education programs.

The Children's Agenda won't be the district's only oversight for special education. The Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, a parent-run group, within the district, meets monthly, typically discussing problems children are having in school, available resources and programs, and how to access them. At a recent meeting, parents urged the district to improve communication between special education teachers and staff and parents.

The school board has also just formed a new Advisory Committee on Special Education. New board member Melanie Funchess, who is director of community engagement with the Mental Health Association and has worked extensively with children with disabilities, will chair the board's new committee.

"The advisory committee is going to do a top-to-bottom review of what is going on in this district with special education," School Board President Van White said in phone interview on Friday. "Some have said that special education in this district has gotten worse, and I'm not in a position to negate that. But the solutions need to come from the community."

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