Report shows prevalence of learning disabilities
Assistant Superintendent of Special Services Andrea Leonardi provided an update on the status of special services in the school district during the Board of Education’s Dec. 7 meeting.
Her department’s report detailed how many students fell into each category as of Oct. 1:
- Learning disabilities: 176
- OHI-ADD/ADHD: 103
- Autism: 89
- Speech/language: 62
- Other health impairment: 30
- Emotional disturbance: 29
- Dyslexia: 24
- Developmental delay: 18
- Multiple disabilities: 18
- Intellectually disabled: 9
- Hearing impaired: 6
- Traumatic brain injury: 1
Six of those students are between the ages of 18 and 21 — one with multiple disabilities, one with an intellectual disability and four with autism.
“Not unlike the rest of the country,” she noted, the category most prevalent in the school district is learning disabilities.
In 2015, a new Connecticut law identifying dyslexia as a “primary disability” went into effect and since its implementation, Leonardi said, the school district has seen “more students identified with dyslexia.”
However, she said, the dyslexia category “still does not reflect all the students with reading disorders” — something many students with learning disabilities have.
“Those numbers in the category of dyslexia, I think, misrepresent the number of students with learning disabilities where reading is the primary source of the disability,” said Leonardi.
“That is something you’ll see adjust over the years as more students are identified with dyslexia.”
Leonardi said there are students who have “both a reading-writing and a math learning disability, so dyslexia would really not tell the whole story of the range of that student’s disability.”
As a result, she said, these students would fall under the learning disability category.
Children are often not identified with dyslexia in kindergarten or first grade, she said, because the tendency is to wait for “the first rounds of achievement data” before diagnosing “to see if children are struggling with reading.”
However, she said, “there are better tools to diagnose,” and “reading achievement isn’t the only indicator we should be looking at to diagnose dyslexia.” These include phonological awareness and working memory issues.
Early diagnosis, Leonardi added, can prevent dyslexic students from needing “ongoing IEPs [individualized education plans] forever.”
“They can receive good services and learn to compensate for that disability rather well,” she said. “That’s the target.”
Leonardi said she didn’t know the exact number of students with 504 Accommodation Plans in the district, but knows the number is “significant.”
The reason for that, she said, is that “we have a lot of students with diagnosed attention deficit disorder, anxiety and depression who are receiving 504s, along with students who have 504 for health-related issues like type 1 diabetes and heart anomalies — different things that require some level of modification or accommodation, but don’t require special education.”
Seven students have received homebound instruction since the beginning of the school year — one seventh grader, one eighth grader, two 11th graders, and three 12th graders.
One of those is the result of a disciplinary action, four are for medical reasons and two are for social, emotional or behavioral reasons, according to Leonardi’s report.
“Those are not out-of-whack, proportionally, to any other district at this time,” she said.
Leonardi’s report also addressed the District Management Council (DMC)’s 2015 Special Education and Struggling Students Opportunities Review report and work that’s been done, and still needs to be done, by the school district in response.
The DMC report identified six opportunities for growth in the school district and, according to Leonardi’s report, the district has begun work to address each of them.
One of those opportunities is to create and implement a consistent scientific research-based intervention (SRBI) model for kindergarten through fifth grade. Leonardi said she and Assistant Superintendent Chuck Smith have been “working to create a smooth continuum between the SRBI and the identification of special education.”
“That’s a piece of the work that is ongoing and that will be part of our overall department improvement plan that will fit in with the district improvement plan,” she said.
Another opportunity is “working toward increasing time spent by staff in direct service to students through increasing efficiencies in meetings and processes required by law.”
To address that, Leonardi said, she is working with staff to identify what pulls them away from time spent directly with students and how to change that.
Among the things that “drag staff away from students,” Leonardi said, are planning placement team (PPT) meetings. According to her report, the district had 443 PPTs between September and November:
- Preschool: 42
- Miller-Driscoll: 42
- Cider Mill: 94
- Middlebrook: 91
- Wilton High School: 174
“The preschool numbers are pretty in line with where they should be, but the high school numbers are way out of whack,” said Leonardi. “We need to start looking at what’s driving PPT meetings and look to bring that to a more reasonable place.”
Other DMC opportunities the district is focusing on are:
- Working with related services to understand scheduling and working toward things like greater efficiencies and grouping practices.
- Beginning work on streamlining paperwork, data collection, progress monitoring, and parent communication.
- Working with staff to prepare for meetings in order to increase efficiency of time spent away from students.
Board member Glenn Hemmerle said special education has been “a subject of conversation in this community for a long, long time,” and he encouraged “anyone in the public who has any interest in this area” to read Leonardi’s report.
“I think it would give everybody a clear understanding of what’s involved, what we’re about, how it works, why it works, etc.,” he said.
The report is available here.