Halfway through a yearlong special education audit, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board Jan. 9 heard common themes found in five completed audit areas.
The University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Education Improvement, also known as CAREI, is conducting the audit for approximately $600,000. It is scheduled to conclude by June 30.
Kim Gibbons, associate director for innovation and outreach at CAREI, presented on the following themes: comprehensive systems to meet the needs of all students, communication and decision-making, professional development, neighborhood schools and a continuum of services, staffing, and mental health.
Comprehensive systems to meet the needs of all students
Through focus groups, interviews, surveys, direct observation and existing data review, the audit uncovered a need for a Multi-Tiered System of Supports model to be more consistently implemented across the district.
“MTSS is not what you should think of as another education initiative,” Gibbons said. “It’s not like the newest educational fad that we’re going to jump on that bandwagon and then two years later be on to something else. It’s really a framework where we fit existing practices within.”
Three areas of focus around MTSS are assessments, making sure all students are screened regularly throughout the year; tiers of service, ensuring effective instruction exists at three levels – universal instruction for all students, supplemental instruction for some students and more intensive instruction for a few students; and use of collaborative teams to help guide instruction.
Related, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports provide a continuum of services related to behavior specifically.
“We need to have a more universal structure for all students for not only correcting behavior, but also for teaching pro-social behavior,” Gibbons said.
Consultants found it difficult to evaluate staffing in general and at the district office without a unified MTSS framework in place across the district, according to Gibbons.
Staff reported “spending so much time running around putting out fires,” but with a more “proactive system” in place, staff’s response to core tasks would look different, Gibbons said.
Communication and decision-making
The audit revealed “inconsistent communication procedures between general and special education,” Gibbons said.
While survey data showed staff members know a communication procedure exists, no staff members could describe the procedure in focus groups.
“There was also confusion and lack of transparency in budgeting and resource allocation, which they feel exacerbates the communication issues,” Gibbons said.
Special education teachers do not currently meet in professional learning communities with general education teachers, and that time to collaborate is critical, according to Gibbons.
“In order for kids to participate in the general education environment, there has to be time built in for people to plan, and to talk and collaborate about the type of instruction that the students are going to need,” Gibbons said.
The audit found that paraprofessionals could use additional training to better implement their duties, and coaching is needed following professional development to help teachers bring what they’ve learned back to their classrooms. Without coaching, research shows that only 10 percent of teachers implement what they have learned, Gibbons said.
In the area of developmental cognitive disabilities, providing training and support for special education teachers on the new Reading Wonders curriculum introduced this school year is on the to-do list.
“We beat them to the punch on some of these recommendations,” said Cory McIntyre, executive director of student services, noting that in the weeks since consultants visited, changes have been made surrounding curriculum.
Neighborhood schools and a continuum of services
“Students with disabilities should have the opportunity to attend the school that they would attend if they didn’t have disabilities,” Gibbons said.
The audit encourages the district to think deeply about creating a continuum of services within each school.
“We have to deeply expand the culture of the neighborhood school as an inclusive community of learners,” Gibbons said.
Students with a developmental cognitive disability have limited opportunities for inclusion in general education classrooms and access to science and social studies curriculum.
Most students with a mild to moderate developmental cognitive disability are placed in center-based classrooms in Anoka-Hennepin, the audit found. Consultants recommended the district try to accommodate such students in neighborhood schools.
“We’re not talking about eliminating center-based programs,” McIntyre said. “But how do we bolster our supports so that more students might be able to maintain progress at their neighborhood schools?”
One audit area focused solely on staffing, but it was a common theme found across audit areas.
“The staffing level that currently exists is probably more appropriate to the student population of 10 years ago,” Gibbons said. “The student complexity has changed over time.”
More students have dysregulation issues, or are unable to regulate their impulses, and mental health issues, she said.
Consultants recommended the district consider reorganizing staff at the district level to provide more immediate support in individual schools.
Providing full-time lead teachers at the elementary level and clerical staff to help with the tremendous amount of paperwork required from special education teachers were two additional recommendations.
With Anoka-Hennepin’s large size, auditors recommended the district recruit a qualified board certified behavior analyst to provide behavioral consultation across schools and full-time substitute paraprofessionals to fill in when staff members are absent.
In the area of autism spectrum disorders, it is hard to support students with challenging behaviors in settings available in the district, according to auditors. Additionally, students with behavioral difficulties due to mental health issues are occasionally grouped with students who have autism spectrum disorders, leading some students at the elementary level in ASD classrooms to feel unsafe, some teachers reported.
Consultants in the area of developmental cognitive disabilities recorded that more students are having co-occurring mental health needs.
At River Trail Learning Center, the district’s federal special education setting level 4 program in Coon Rapids, consultants found mental health services were provided inconsistently.
“Teachers need additional training and support in this area,” Gibbons said.
Recommendations to expand the MTSS framework should extend to the area of mental health, Gibbons said.
A future audit area is interagency and will take a look at the work of district partners providing mental health services.
“It’s an opportunity to have these results right before our staffing and budgeting time,” McIntyre said, noting that 10 more audits are scheduled past the staffing window.
The district is diving into findings, and McIntyre would like to develop a three- to five-year plan to implement changes.
“I feel a sense of urgency to get things happening pretty quick,” he said.
Some recommendations do not come with an attached cost, but many do.
“You’re not authorizing any additional spending tonight,” Superintendent David Law reminded the School Board after the presentation.
Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann cautioned McIntrye about moving too quickly to make changes.
“I love that we’re eager to move forward,” Heidemann said. “It’s really important to have a clear vision.”
The audit will continue through June.