Special education overhaul

‘Unofficial suspensions’ and 10 other reasons Detroit’s main district is overhauling special education

PHOTO: via Twitter
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and his wife, Rachel Vitti, are raising two children with dyslexia and have spoken about the need to improve services to children with special needs in Detroit.

A transportation network that was so dysfunctional, students with special needs were left sitting at home for a bus that never came.

An understaffed placement center with a single phone line tasked with orchestrating special education in the Michigan’s largest school district.

A school assignment system that sometimes sent children to the wrong program.

“Weak” instruction for students with special needs.

Those were just some of the findings from an audit of special education in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti commissioned the report from a team of education experts soon after he took over the district last year, knowing it would reveal serious problems that have led to dozens of state and federal complaints.

The auditors were selected by the Council of Great City Schools, an association of large urban school districts, for their experience leading districts in cities including Los Angeles and Chicago. Last month, Vitti incorporated their recommendations into the plans he unveiled for an overhaul of special education.

Proposed changes include a new complaint hotline for parents, more teacher training, and a gut renovation of the district’s process for identifying students with disabilities and ensuring they receive appropriate services. One change the district has already made: swapping the phrase “special education” for “exceptional student education.”

Detroit’s main district is far from the only one in the state that is struggling to educate students with special needs. Michigan was the sole state in the U.S. whose special education programming was rated “needs intervention” by federal officials this month.

Indeed, by some measures the district is on par with its peers in Michigan. Its test scores and dropout rates among students with special needs — two key reasons the state was singled out by federal regulators — have improved in recent years, according to the audit.

That held true despite the auditors’ finding that the district enrolls a far higher proportion of Detroit’s highest-need special education students than charter schools in the city.

A look at the audit provides more details on the shortfalls in the district’s special education programs.  Here are some of the key findings in the 182-page document.

You can read it in full below.

Children with special needs were given “unofficial” suspensions.

Auditors heard “numerous reports” that teachers were sending misbehaved children home without documenting it as a suspension. The practice allowed teachers to skip the behavior management techniques that are required before an out-of-school suspension can be given. “Reportedly, all out-of-school suspensions are not being recorded properly, and instead students are being sent home ‘unofficially,’ ” auditors wrote. The district’s plan for special education says the district’s disciplinary practices will change, noting that “removals of students with exceptionalities without required and appropriate documentation” hurt students’ learning and violate federal law.

Students with special needs are too often placed in separate classes from their non-disabled peers.

Studies show that students with disabilities do better in math and language when they are placed in general education classrooms. But in Detroit’s main district, a “disproportionately high” number of students attend separate schools designed exclusively for children with special needs. In Wayne County, 6 percent of such students attend separate schools, and the figure is similar statewide. In Detroit, it’s twice as high: 12 percent of students with special needs are separated from their typical peers during the school day.

A busing system for special needs students is stretched thin, leaving some children waiting at home for days.

It can take as many as 10 days to add a new student to the bus route for students with disabilities. And, “if parents are unable to transport their child to a new school before the bus route is initiated, the student remains at home,” the auditors wrote. “Reportedly, this process sometimes takes weeks to resolve.”

The district has taken an unusual approach to special education programming: Students are grouped at schools based on their diagnosed disability — not on the services they actually require. As a result, students were sometimes bussed across the city even if a nearby program would have met their needs.

Data suggest that students’ disabilities are identified by failure instead of by early warning signs.

The percentage of students with disabilities in the district grows every year from the kindergarten to the eighth grade. “These figures suggest that students may not be identified before they have experienced academic failure when there would be more time for intensive interventions,” the auditors wrote.

A single special education placement center struggles to address the needs of the entire district.

The district relies on a single “placement center” to process students with special needs when they are first identified or upon their arrival in the district. Auditors noted numerous problems with the center: “The use of one phone line at the center substantially restricts placement center access,” they wrote, adding: “Parents are sometimes told by school personnel that the school does not have the ‘correct’ services for the student and to return to the placement center for another school option.”

The teacher shortage is especially severe in special education.

Detroit’s main district has 16 special education students for every one teacher, placing it in the bottom third of large urban districts nationwide. At the time of the audit, fully 37 teaching positions in special education were filled by long-term substitutes. Classroom aides are in even shorter supply in the district. The district’s aide-to-student ratio ranks among the bottom 20 percent of large urban districts, and it has struggled to fill dozens of vacancies. “These shortages affect instruction, service delivery, timely evaluations, and compliance,” the auditors wrote.

Some schools are overloaded with special education classes, making it hard for principals to keep up.

The percentage of students with special needs at each school varies widely — from 1 percent at Renaissance and Cass Tech high schools to 56 percent at the Detroit Institute of Technology, Cody. That’s because some schools have far more special education classes than others. “Hosting large numbers of specialized classes affects the ability of principals to support inclusive educational opportunities, intensive interventions, and transportation services,” the auditors wrote.

The district’s academic program for special needs students is “weak.”

The auditors found that the district was failing in the basic job of providing high-quality instruction to students with disabilities. The system for teaching concepts like math and reading was “weak,” auditors found. And when students failed to understand the first time, “interventions were poorly defined, were not regularly used, and training on them was uneven.”

English language learners were more likely to be diagnosed with a speech impairment — or to fall through the cracks.

English learners were five times more likely than their English-speaking peers to be diagnosed with a speech or language impairment. What’s more, the district struggled to identify learning disabilities in English learners before the sixth grade, perhaps because teachers couldn’t tell the difference between a disability and not speaking English. “These patterns raise questions about the district’s ‘child find’ and identification processes,” the auditors wrote.

And English learners virtually stopped receiving language help once they entered the special education program, according to the audit.

Even as teachers ask for help dealing with unruly behavior, the district employs only three dedicated behavior interventionists.

In focus groups, teachers told the auditors that they were having trouble with student behavior. Yet only three teachers in the district are dedicated to behavioral interventions.  “It is necessary for many more individuals to develop their own expertise to support positive student behaviors,” the auditors wrote.

Parents — not district staff trained in special education — were most likely to identify a child’s disability.

“Generally, a special education request is initiated through a parent request,” the auditors wrote, rather than through a school’s determination “that there was a basis for suspecting a possible disability and potential need for special education.” In other words, teachers didn’t have the time and training to identify special needs before they became unmissable.

Yet the district didn’t give parents a way to express concerns about their children. (Vitti’s administration plans to introduce a special education hotline this year.)


Getting ready for school

Kindergarten ‘boot camp’ aims to ready young Detroit children — and their parents — for school

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
In this counting exercise, twin brothers, Rafael and Nicholas Gonzalez, prepare to stack pretend scoops of ice cream on their cones.

In a back room of a church on the city’s near east side,  Abraham and Magaly Gonzalez attended a summer camp with their 5-year-old twins. Six other children from the church’s child care center were seated around a rectangular table lit by fluorescent overhead lights, working on exercises to teach them colors, numbers, and shapes.

“They have to learn more,” Magaly Gonzalez said, explaining that the couple has been working with the boys, Rafael and Nicholas, at home using books and videos, “and we have to learn more to help them.”

This was their second session in the Detroit main district’s newly launched Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week summer program led by district staff that focuses on the basics children need to start school. The Gonzalezes sent their sons to preschool when they were 4 years old. But the couple was so excited about what their boys learned in an earlier camp that they came to the People’s Missionary Baptist Church, a community site, to help them learn more: how to count to 20, spell and write their names, and recognize letters and shapes.

Although school readiness is not a new notion for educators, in the past couple of years, the summer programs for children who are about to start kindergarten have become a national trend, said Robin Jacob, a University of Michigan research associate professor who focuses on K-12 educational intervention.

“They are a fairly new idea, and they are important,” said Jacob, who researched more than a dozen similar programs that recently have sprung up from Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif., many targeting children who had no prior preschool education.

A full year of preschool is the best way to get children ready for kindergarten, she said, “but we know there are kids who fall through the cracks and it’s important to catch those children, and preschool doesn’t always include parents so they learn how to help their children at home.”

A growing number of districts and schools have added the programs, recognizing that they last only a few weeks, are relatively inexpensive, and keep students engaged during the summer months, she said.

These early lessons are important for children and their parents, said Sharlonda Buckman, the Detroit district’s assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, because officials too often hear from teachers that children don’t know how to sit in their seats, line up, or hold a pencil.

Even when they’ve gone to preschool, she said, some children still have trouble,  because kindergarten requires more discipline and structure than preschool. The children’s parents often don’t know how to prepare their children for kindergarten and lifelong learning.

That’s why the district’s program requires parents like the Gonzalezes to attend the boot camp sessions with their children.

“People automatically assume Kindergarten Boot Camp is about the kids,” Buckman said. “For us, it’s about the parents.”

About 100 parents attended the classes this summer in nine elementary schools and the church to build on the belief that “parents are the child’s best teacher,” Buckman said.

Parents also are involved in programs sponsored by Living Arts, a nonprofit arts organization, that is offering a range of programming in Detroit through Head Start to help preschool children and their parents get ready for the first day of school.

“Our movement, drama and music activities encourage children to learn how to be part of a line to transition to another part of the day such as going outside, the bathroom or a circle,” said Erika Villarreal-Bunce, the Living Arts director of programs. “The arts help children understand this new space they’re in is not like things were at home, and helps children learn to function in those spaces.”

Although not all camps require parent involvement, they offer similar lessons to prepare children for kindergarten.

In suburban cities such as Southfield and Huntington Woods, the Bricks 4 Kidz program uses models made of brightly colored bricks to teach preschool children letter recognition, patterns, colors, counting, and vocabulary. Maria Montoya, a spokeswoman from the Grand Valley State University, the largest charter authorizer in Detroit, said she wasn’t aware of any similar summer kindergarten readiness programs. They also did not receive grant funding for the pre-kindergarten initiative.

The best of them teach basic academics, instruct children in a classroom setting, and engage parents in student learning, Jacob said.

“Educators have thought about school readiness for a long time, but understanding how important that summer transition period can be is something that people have started to think about more carefully recently,” she said. “Summertime is a key time where kids can be learning.”

Regina Bell, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation program officer, said the foundation funded Detroit’s Kindergarten Boot Camp because of the importance of focusing on the earliest years of life to ensure students’ success in K-12 and beyond.

“Part of this is recognizing that most of the the human brain is developed by the age of 5, and when you think about early learning opportunities, those are the foundation for the future,” she said. “It is that foundation that really takes children into the K-12 system.”

Kindergarten Boot Camp, funded by a $3 million Kellogg grant, is only one part of the Detroit district’s efforts to increase parent involvement to improve student attendance, discipline issues, and test scores. The three-year grant also funds the Parent Academy and teacher home visits. (Kellogg is also a Chalkbeat funder).

As for Abraham Gonzalez, the twins’ father, parenting and teaching children doesn’t come naturally. So he says the early learning opportunity for his sons is essential for them — and their parents, although they spent a year in preschool at the Mark Twain School for Scholars in southwest Detroit.

“We are trying our best to teach these kids,” he said, and it’s even more challenging teaching them when Spanish is their first language.

Now, he said, the boys’ are getting so proficient at English, they understand more than their parents.

“They are understanding what the people tell them,” he said. “Sometimes, we don’t.”

School funding

Poll: Most residents want Michigan to change the way it funds schools

PHOTO: (Photo by Ariel Skelley via Getty Images)
Members of the School Finance Research Collaborative are calling for equitable school funding so all Michigan students get the education they deserve.

Most Michigan residents believe the state’s current method of funding schools is both insufficient and unfair.

Those were the findings of a new statewide poll that was conducted in June by the School Finance Research Collaborative, a prominent group of Michigan educators, policymakers, and business leaders that has called for major changes to the way schools are funded.

The poll of 600 Michigan residents found that 70 percent believe the state’s schools are underfunded, and 63 percent think they are not funded fairly.

“The results of the poll should really be a wake-up call for policymakers on both sides of the aisle, and to anyone seeking elected office,” said Wanda Cook-Robinson, a School Research Collaborative member and superintendent of Oakland Schools. “They need to listen to the Michiganders and use the school finance research collaborative study as a road map for a new, fair schools funding system.”

The poll follows a report the collaborative released in January, which recommended sweeping changes to the way schools in Michigan are funded. Instead of sending schools the same amount per student, the report recommended providing schools with additional funds for students who are learning English, living in poverty or facing other challenges.

The group spent nearly two years and about $900,000 producing the report but it did not get much immediate response from Lansing. The education budget signed by Gov. Rick Snyder this summer included increases to school funding, but made no changes to the funding formula.

Michael Addonizio, a professor of Education Policy Studies at Wayne State University and a member of the collaborative, said the poll offers another reason why lawmakers should pay attention to the issue.

“It’s time for a new school funding system that meets the unique, individual needs of all students, whether they are enrolled in special education, living in poverty, English language learners, and [whether] students attend school in geographically isolated areas of the state,” he said.

Details about the survey including the specific questions asked are below.