RACINE — “It cannot fall by the wayside,” said the authors of a report that recommends reforms to Racine Unified’s special education program.
The authors found that not all staff understand the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and asserted that for changes to happen in special education performance at Unified, “there has to be a meaningful shift in beliefs, attitudes and practice…”.
The report was the result of a review of Racine Unified’s special education program by an outside agency ordered by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in February.
The review was ordered following a complaint filed by Disability Rights Wisconsin in December 2018 on behalf of a group of Unified parents and their children. The DRW complaint, along with a separate whistle blower complaint, alleged violations of special education-related state, federal and local laws and regulations.
The report, by contracted independent consultant team Jodi Searl and Eric Hartwig, was completed in November after around four months of interviews with internal and external stakeholders as well as a review of district level policies and procedures other reports and district data. Searl has a PhD and a law degree and previously worked for Milwaukee Public Schools. Hartwig has a PhD in educational administration and extensive experience in education including as a district administrator and school psychologist.
“We’re thankful for the outside consultants to kind of shed an additional light and a critical look at what our practices are at the district level,” said Unified’s Executive Director of Special Education Rachel Schuler. “So we are committed to making sure that we move things in a positive direction as swiftly as possible.”
Since filing the complaint a year ago, DRW has not seen much improvement when it comes to the district’s compliance with rules and regulations, said Sally Flaschberger, lead advocacy specialist for the organization. Representatives from DRW were also hoping for a deeper dive into the special education issues at Unified than what was outlined in the report.
“Overall, we were disappointed in the lack of a true review of the special education programs,” Flaschberger said in a statement. “Our agency had hoped there would be more detail provided about the analysis of what is actually happening in special education across the District.”
The review found that the district’s special education policies and procedures were strong but that implementation was lacking, and that although training materials and training are relative strengths, Unified employees have an inconsistent understanding of IDEA.
“Unfortunately, not all staff who need training are required to take it and demonstrate competency,” the report says.
In the report, the authors recommend district-wide training on policies and procedures and a robust professional development cycle with personalized training plans. It also advised real-time behavioral health training at the classroom level with emphasis on relationship-informed teaching.
In the 2018 calendar year, 16 IDEA complaints were filed with the DPI against Racine Unified, with 11 of those complaints resulting in corrective actions or findings. In 2019, nine complaints were filed against Unified with four of those resulting in corrective actions or findings. One of the 2019 complaints is still being investigated.
“We are not seeing a new level of compliance,” Flaschberger said.
DRW continues to receive calls from Unified parents asking for help, and is holding monthly phone calls with the district’s special education team in an effort to resolve problems expeditiously.
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The consultant team found multiple instances where regular education teachers and administrators did “not know or care to know anything about special education,” which the team found consistent with previous reports.
“It’s hard to hear that, obviously,” Schuler said. “But I think that just affirms some of the changes that we already started putting into place.”
The district restructured its special education department over the summer, reducing staff to create more meaningful relationships and to focus its work.
The review recommended work around the district’s organizational culture to help change attitudes.
“All principals must understand that students with special education needs are first regular education students and the principal is accountable for achievement just like any other student,” the report states.
This means that principals should ensure that Individual Education Plans or IEPs for special education students are developed to provide adequate services and are properly implemented.
Over the summer, Unified provided intensive training on IEPs to its principals through a week-long collaborative learning program supported by DPI.
Prior to that, Schuler said the principals had only sporadically been trained in IEP development and implementation.
On Dec. 9, the district held the first meeting of a group of stakeholders formed at the recommendation of the report. The group is made up of district personnel, including Schuler and Superintendent Eric Gallien as well as representatives from Disability Rights Wisconsin and The Arc of Racine County. A parent of a special education student who filed a complaint against the district is also on the team. The team’s goal is to develop a strategic plan for implementing changes recommended in the report. The report advised that the group hold the district accountable for making those changes.
Schuler believes the district’s goal should be to implement as many of the recommended changes as possible, if not all of them.
“Now is the time to act and so that is what we want to do,” Schuler said. “We also know that it’s going to take time for some of these changes to show meaningful impact.”
Schuler said any corrective actions resulting from the review will be put in place through DPI’s joint monitoring team efforts. Representatives from the district and DPI are involved in joint monitoring of the federal laws IDEA and the Every Student Succeeds Act at Racine Unified.
Unified’s special education department paid for the review at a cost of nearly $16,000.
“I just think it’s important to note that we appreciate the feedback and we are just really committed to making sure that our schools are a positive and safe place for our students to learn because they deserve the best education that we can provide them,” Schuler said. “And we’re committed to do that work.”
Flaschberger said DRW would continue to monitor special education at Racine Unified in an effort to hold the district accountable. She added that the work of making change following the review is just beginning.