District looks to review special education

After learning that Wilton students with disabilities “continue to under-perform as related to students without disabilities,” Assistant Superintendent of Special Services Ann Paul said she and other administrators started searching for a consultant group to conduct a review of its special education practices and services.

During the Board of Education’s Dec. 4 meeting, Ms. Paul shared some of the 2012-13 data and CMT scores,  saying, there is “some evidence that the achievement gap between general and special education students widens.”

In 2012-13, compared to the state and District Reference Group (DRG) A averages, to which Wilton belongs, Ms. Paul said, Wilton was found to have the highest prevalence rate of students with learning disabilities — 8.2%.

Ms. Paul said the data also revealed that 5.1% of Wilton’s 4,289 students during the 2012-13 school year were classified as learning disabled, compared to the state average of 4% and the DRG A average of 3.7%.

“One of the hallmark features of a school system that’s high-achieving for all its students, like Wilton, is an ongoing process of systemic improvement,” said Ms. Paul.

Despite Wilton’s dedicated staff, engaged parent community and supportive education board, said Ms. Paul, the process of district-wide systemic improvement  has  led her to question: “Can we do our work for children and families better, and if so, how do we understand, design and implement a plan to get us there?”

Consultant search

During the district’s review of consultant groups, Ms. Paul said, a proposal from the District Management Council has stood out.

“I really like their process, called ‘A Special Education and Struggling Students Opportunities Review,’” said Ms. Paul. “It extends out into general education and all of our students who are struggling in academic areas.”

The council’s “multi-faceted” and “multi-year” process aims to improve student achievement, increase parent satisfaction and effectively use the district’s resources, said Ms. Paul.

The first phase of the council’s opportunity review process centers on gathering “a very deep understanding” of the current status of the district’s special education program, said Ms. Paul.

“They look at the other interventions and support in the district, data review, observations, a lot of work with focus groups, and an analysis of the utilization of staff time,” she explained.

“The second phase involves research — looking more systematically at what we use in the district. It’s that analysis balanced with a lot of in-person stakeholder interviews, because we always want to include our parent community in these discussions.”

Ms. Paul said the council would also compare Wilton to other school districts in the state, as well as the country, so see where it stands.

“Their goal, as they shared it, is not to produce a report,” she said, but to produce real improvements for students and bring about meaningful, measurable and sustainable change.

Ms. Paul asked the board for its support of the review in order to “ensure that the programs and services we provide for special needs students are the most effective in helping them make progress as we measure.

“We measure a student’s progress in relation to their own skill development and we measure it in relation to their typical peers,” Ms. Paul told the board.

“The goal is to improve student outcomes and ... I really think that’s what our parents want — an assurance that we’re being very thoughtful and careful with our eye to improving outcomes for their students.”

Funding

Depending on the level of services provided, the cost of  the District Management Council’s review would be between $125,000 and $200,000, Financial Director Ken Post told The Bulletin.

“Since the project will begin this fiscal year and be completed next fiscal year, it is our intent to split the cost between the two years,” said Mr. Post.

“For next year, we will allocate funds in our proposed budget. For the current year, we are going to use expected surpluses in salary and employee benefits accounts to cover the cost.”

Board feedback

Superintendent Kevin Smith said even though the district is in the process of gathering other proposals, he decided to bring the District Management Council’s to the board in order to “introduce the conversation about conducting a special education opportunity review.”

“When I entered this community as superintendent, Ann alluded that this has been a topic on a list of themes that have emerged,” he said. “In my opinion, it is a code red issue, and we need to look at it.”

Dr. Smith said he is attracted to the District Management Council because it blends both educational expertise and a business return on investment, which he thinks is “very important to the school community and broader community.”

“I think this is very important to the school community and the broader community,” said Dr. Smith. “We need to be able to develop a plan with clear metrics that we can meet and achieve and monitor very carefully.”

Dr. Smith said he and the board’s Teaching and Learning Committee would go through the proposals by the end of the following week.