NORWALK, Conn. — A trio of Special Education consultants has lauded Norwalk Public Schools for the work done to improve the SpEd department, and laid out a thoughtful, detailed analysis of how to keep the ball rolling.
“I will say that a lot of the times were called in for to look at special ed services in a school district, it’s because of a major problem a lawsuit a class action lawsuit or something you know, big going wrong. And some districts call us in just because they want to improve and that’s what happened here,” Lauren Katzman, Ed. D, said at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.
The conversation that followed alluded to legal issues and touched on the problems that have brought Edward Fergus, Ph.D. to town for an extensive “Equity in Education” effort.
“Your Black and African American numbers are high,” Katzman said. “And you knew that from the Dr. Fergus’s work. You have an overrepresentation of students with disabilities in Norwalk, who are Black, African American, and you have an underrepresentation of students who are Asian.”
Katzman, executive director of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative (Urban Collaborative), gave Norwalk Public Schools high marks for reforming its SpEd efforts following a series of damning reports. The so-called CREC (Capitol Region Education Council) reports inspired a $3 million Transitional Special Education Fund to support the reforms efforts from 2016 to 2019.
It’s “incredible” that Norwalk Public Schools achieved 97% of the goals laid out by the CREC, Jennifer Baribeau, Ph.D. said.
“We cannot give enough credit to your Special Education team for getting these systems in place. It is not easy work to do. They spent a lot of time on this, there was a lot of evidence to back that those recommendations from the CREC report have been fully implemented,” Baribeau said.
“The budget has been stabilized, out-of-district placements have been reduced significantly …funding that traditionally goes out-of-district to pay for those schools actually has come back into the district to create some really strong programming,” she said. There’s City funding to create programs and a literacy clinic, hire an audiologist, and purchase assistive technology. “Really, I haven’t heard of any district that’s doing work like that. So really want to give a shout out to your current team for doing these things, recognizing that the budget needed to be stabilized and then using that funding to really create those programs and districts.”
As for what’s not quite done, “It has been very hard, not just in Norwalk but in districts all over the country, to fill speech and language positions, special education teaching positions. What your team has done is they have created partnerships with universities, they’ve created pathways within the district for staff to be licensed,” Baribeau said.
Even so, Baribeau said, “We think as far as the CREC report goes, it’s time for you guys to celebrate this work. It’s time for you to, I would say, put CREC behind you,” she said. “You guys have built the foundation, the technical systems are in place, it’s really time to think about shifting to that adaptive mindset to support the district in moving forward to the next level.”
The meat and potatoes of the two-hour presentation was wrapped up in phrases like, “Special Education is not a place” and “focused on compliance, more than instruction.”
- “We really think that it’s important for all of us to remember that special education isn’t a noun. It’s not a place. It’s not a series of people. It’s not a thing. Special Education is a verb. It’s a series of actions that are provided in all spaces and all places by all people in a collaborative fashion,” said Jennifer Apodaca, Director of Student Services for the Sun Prairie Area School District in Wisconsin.
- “Your special education and academic departments are siloed,” Katzman said, meaning they’re separate from each other. “We know that the district knows that, we know that there’s been work on that…We know that there’s been already some decisions made around this. Just when district departments are siloed, students get pieces of education, they don’t get a clear and comprehensive education. So siloed departments in the district shows up in students’ day to day experiences.”
- “We heard that there were a lot of initiatives. And they weren’t all implemented in depth,” she said. “…The idea with initiatives, creating new systems to create new practices, is you initiate it, then you implement it, then you create institutionalization…. We thought that a lot of the initiatives were not institutionalized before new initiatives were brought on.”
- “There are some data systemic issues that you have, in your special ed data for the district,” Katzman said. “The desired state is that data is easily available to be used to making decisions. You want data-driven decisions, you want people to have easy access to data. And while everybody in the district was phenomenal, lovely, gave us everything we wanted, it was complicated to get some of the data.”
Katzman referred to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when she said, “most of the conversation around special education is focused on compliance.”
While the district must comply with the law first and foremost, “We want to, again, shift people over to thinking more about instruction and achievement,” Katzman said. And:
- “When we talked to staff, there was a fear and we use the word “retaliation” very hesitantly, but that particular word was said so often that we had to use the word. So there’s a fear of retaliation for making decisions, for saying certain things or contradicting.”
- “There is a culture of us-versus-them. ‘Kids with disabilities, kids without disabilities,’ ‘special ed staff, non-special ed staff,’ there is a culture of us and them. And we want you to think about creating structures that focus on equitable and inclusive practice decision-making.”
- “We want you to reimagine special education to be a set of services rather than a place, develop those services with the explicit goal of improved student outcomes.”
There’s limited collaborative problem-solving outside of Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meetings, and, “We heard that because there weren’t these collaborative structures that in the meetings is when all the decisions and the problem solving was happening, which made the meeting sometimes uncomfortable. That term retaliation came up in those, made them overly long. Not that they shouldn’t be long, if it’s appropriate, but overly long because they’re just trying to problem-solve there,” Katzman said.
The Collaborative recommended that the district have a neutral process to mediate and resolve disagreements. Katzman said:
- “There was a lot of talk in the district around lawyers and advocates. And it seemed like a contentious issue, which advocates, you know, you can use advocates to your advantage as a district and the families need advocates and lawyers, then there’s something wrong with the trust in the district. So you need to like really think about that.”
- “Families who are white and with the means hire advocates and lawyers for wanting special education supports and services, and families whose first language is not English are not receiving timely transitions.”
- “There have been significant actions taken to improve relationships with the families, but there remain frustrations, particularly around families of color.”
The demographics look good at the surface level, with Norwalk’s percentage of students with disabilities right in line with the State and the country, Katzman said. But when you drill down and study the percentage of students with disabilities by disability category “you have an issue with looking at African Americans in general, looking at English language learners.”
“Students with disabilities are suspended at much higher rates than students without disabilities, 9 percent versus 3 percent,” she said. “I mean that those numbers are low, which is good, but it’s still a lot more for students with disabilities. And then if you look at where that’s happening, a lot of it is happening for students who are classified with an emotional disturbance. And if the IEP is attending to a student’s needs, and a student with an emotional disturbance has social emotional behavioral needs, then why are they being suspended? So, what’s not happening there?”
There’s confusion about the difference between struggling to learn English and having a disability, and sometimes people say “well, where else can we get them services” and just give students an Individualized Education Program (IEP), according to Katzman. “You want to think about that in terms of when students are first classified, what they’re classified as having, and I promise you that this is an issue across the country,” she said. “And there’s some really good work happening in different places that can help your district to address this issue.”
“I want to be clear that Dr. Fergus has done a lot of work on looking at disproportionality, obviously, and disproportionality ratios. And we are working with (Norwalk ACTS),” Katzman said.
It may sound expensive but it will ‘save dollars’
“There is no SpEd family that wants to hire an advocate or a lawyer,” BoE Ad-Hoc Special Education Chairwoman Erica DePalma said. “We have medical bills, we have adaptive everything. We have specialized extracurriculars that come at a cost, even our babysitters cost more because they need specialized training. It is not something that we want to add to our plate. So I hope that we get to that desired state, because I think there’s a lot of families out there that struggle with incremental costs.”
BoE member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell asked for a root-cause analysis of the staffing shortages. Katzman said:
- “We heard from a lot of people, ‘we need more staff, we need more staff, they’re overwhelmed’…. And maybe you do…(But) we want you to look at what the staff has to do. Because one of the things that we heard, for one of the other reasons for high turnover, was they felt like there was just too much on their plate. And in fact, there are some things on their plate that maybe could be attended to in other ways.”
- “Because of the historic distrust between the district and the community, you are asking related service providers to input the same, almost the same data in two different places. That’s a lot of work.”
- “There was some duplicative work. And again, if you’re not collaborating, then there’s their siloed work, which means everybody does more…Get rid of some of the paperwork.”
“One of the gaps that we currently have in our infrastructure is that we have just one person who’s mainly focused around data accountability from the state, but not necessarily a wishes and analytics team that is taking the special education, multilingual learners, general education, gifted and talented, all of these different data points, and having a comprehensive tool that is compiling all of this information,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Alexandra Estrella said.
While there’s “an investment factor that … we have to keep in mind,” NPS is talking with one of its philanthropic supporters about its current data systems and the effects they have on students, Estrella said.
While an investment “may sound expensive, when instruction is data-driven, it will improve our student outcomes, and it will ultimately save taxpayers dollars,” DePalma said.
“I think a lot of the work we need to do moving forward is shifting the mindset of Special Education being a service not a place, having a clear emphasis that special education is not a permanent location, it is something that should build the capacity of the child, so they can be reintegrated into the general education setting,” Estrella said. “…I’m looking forward to the integration of the Special Education department into curriculum and instruction. Because we really have to emphasize the importance of exposing our students that have IEPs to standard-based instruction, so that they can develop the skills and strategies necessary to fully integrate into the general education program, once they develop and build the capacity. So again, just thank you to the team for an amazing job so far, and for setting the platform for the work that needs to happen moving forward.”