Correction 4 pm: Goorevitch has been here three months. Updated, 10:50 a.m.: Copy edit.
NORWALK, Conn. — Hours and hours are being spent in City Hall on an unusual hearing spurred by a parent seeking both justice for her son and a spotlight on what she said is a broken Norwalk Special Education process.
It was evident last week, as NancyOnNorwalk sat through just three hours in the lengthy due process hearing, that Arden Church’s 21-year-old son has difficulty reading.
Attorney Marsha Moses, working on behalf of the Special Education Department, on different afternoons queried two specialists about progress they made with Church’s son this Spring.
“He was reading at eighth grade level with assistance,” a specialist from Lindamood Bell, a research-based literacy center, said Thursday, then explaining that the instruction was then shifted back to a fourth or fifth grade level because the young man was running out of time and teachers felt they needed to focus on skills he needed to get along in the world.
Ordinarily, due process hearings are closed to the public. Church has requested that this one be open.
Church’s son turned 21 in April, which means that Norwalk Public Schools was legally mandated to educate him through last June. If he had turned 21 in July, then he would get services for another year, she said.
“He was owed things in his IEP (Individualized Education Program) that he did not get, to this day he has still not gotten,” Church said after Thursday’s proceedings, explaining what she and her lawyer were hoping to achieve with their legal challenge. “So, there is that issue. But also we are trying to show that he didn’t have a free- and appropriate-education in prior years … based on the progress that he made when they he had services that were more appropriate for him. Their position is ‘no, we did this’ and ‘we did that.’ They feel their programs were appropriate and it shows that it truly was not.”
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education.
Also pertinent is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); Moses and the hearing officer objected Wednesday to the presence of a reporter in the room. Photographs and recording devices were prohibited, they said.
About 10 people were seated around a conference table, including Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch, Moses, Church and her attorney. A man sat at a table in the corner behind them, wearing headphones as he monitored an audio-recording device.
A mother sat watching in another corner.
Moses cross examined a female reading specialist Wednesday, inquiring how much progress Church’s son had made in his last months of instruction, and the meaning of various test results.
The woman said Church’s son was authorized for two hours of instruction but she usually provided an extra half hour as he waited for the bus. She had an assistant, reinforcing the instruction, she said.
The woman said she hadn’t worked on advanced concepts, such as when “i” sounds like “e,” as in the word “stadium,” with the young man. Later, she explained that it’s always a conundrum to decide whether to test or teach, because a test take up two or three days’ worth of time that could be used to teach new skills.
“I felt like there was so much I wanted to teach him and I didn’t want to lose any of that. So I was very strategic,” she said.
They worked from a book on starting a small business because time was running out; she had taught him a lot of phonetic concepts and she was trying to help him with life skills, encouraging him to think about expanding his lawn mowing business, she said.
On Thursday, a male specialist from Lindamood Bell said Church’s son had trouble following simple instructions, which wouldn’t show in a test, and referred to a primer for a 5-year-old.
Three or four mothers sat watching; reportedly seven had attended the morning session. They declined to comment.
The instructor said, “His biggest goal was passing a driver’s test, so that was where things were focused… We started to see a lot more growth in his ability to perceive the size of objects.”
Again, instruction was based on, “What is going to be most practical for (Church’s son) if we don’t see him again after June 30?” the instructor said, referring to fourth and fifth grade science levels.
The hearing, which began Oct. 30, was continued to Monday. Thursday’s session was four hours; Wednesday’s was six hours.
Church said she’s going to release a letter to the editor about Norwalk’s Special Education Department.
“My goal here at this point, is that it is absolutely about my son, getting him services that he deserves and is owed but it’s taken on a life a little bigger than that because there are some parents out there, as was witnessed by the folks in the room, that are getting raked over the coals by a very broken system,” she said. “I am ultimately taking up that cause because it is just wrong – wrong is wrong no matter how you want to paint a happy face on it. This is wrong.”
Her son “had the same IEP goals for years and years and years and years, and he was not making progress,” she said, explaining that progress made more recently with the “right specialists” and other outsourced programs shows that he was shortchanged.
Norwalk’s Special Education Department has been criticized in a series of reports issued by the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), first in 2008, then in 2012 and 2015.
In 2012, CREC found that Norwalk was operating “a very lean and under-funded special education program,” with a lower ratio of staff to students than other districts in the state in the areas of special education teachers, special education aides, speech and language pathologists, social workers, school psychologists and school nurses.
Parents were dissatisfied with their child’s IEPs, frequently stating they were not followed, or the district failed to notify them that there would be a temporary deviation from an IEP, the 2015 report said.
Norwalk is working to improve its Special Education Department, with $3.3 million in funding to create in-house programs over two years, with more funding expected to continue the effort.
“Although it’s an open hearing, I can’t give any information about the specific young person it’s about, or the specifics of this due process,” Goorevitch said.
However, she said, “Due process hearings happen when everything else has failed. Communication has broken down or there’s a sense of mistrust between the district and the parents, usually the parents are feeling that sense of distrust. If we can’t get to agreement then parents have the right to due process. It tends to be costly, in terms of the number of hours, as well as the people in the process.”
SpEd parents have criticized the district’s hiring of Moses, calling her a very tough, expensive lawyer.
“Moses has been on call, forcing SpEd legal bills to sky rocket while parents are stonewalled from her decisions,” Kim Tromba said in December.
Goorevitch is new to Norwalk, having come here three months ago from New Rochelle, N.Y.
“In 40 years, I typically have had one or two (due process hearings) every two or three years,” she said.
She is “deeply committed” to developing new programs for NPS, in collaboration with parents, to greatly reduce litigation and due process, she said.
“I have learned from my colleagues that Fairfield County is pretty litigious area. … My goal has been, for 40 years, to not find ourselves in this situation, where communication has broken down,” Goorevitch said, explaining that once the hearing officer and the lawyers leave, the district is left to repair its relationship with parents and, “Depending on which side prevails, there is an appeal and It can go through the courts, and it takes a long time to resolve.”
It’s anticipated that 90 percent of disabled students will graduate with a high school diploma but sometimes it takes longer and students with more severe disabilities are entitled to be in school until they are 21, she explained.
There are about 25 post-high school students receiving instruction, typically focused on vocational and independent living topics, and a few students in another program, she said.
Once the student hits 21, the situation changes, she said, explaining that while public schools are required to provide an education, “after that they may be eligible for services through adult providers.”
“It’s very hard to make a seamless transition. No transition is perfect,” she said.
“I had another experience with due process involving a post-secondary disagreement,” she said, with a parent seeking compensatory services after the student reached 21, but, “It’s a very high bar.”