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How’s ‘exceptional’ ed doing? No report from School District

STORY BY KATHLEEN SLOAN

More than a year into exceptional-student-education reform within the Indian River County School District, no clear report has been given by staff on what is happening.

At a recent “workshop” to inform School Board members, staff stuck to generalities, mostly regurgitating federal requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. They told the board what is expected and required, but not what is actually happening here.

Students are classified as “exceptional” for a wide range of reasons, including autism, vision or hearing impairments, emotional disturbance, developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, speech/language disabilities, traumatic brain injury, specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, orthopedic impairments, and other health impairments such as asthma, ADD/ADHD and diabetes.

When he was hired in 2015, the school board directed Superintendent Mark Rendell to improve education for these students. Six months later he hired the Boston-based consulting firm District Management Council for three years at nearly $50,000 a year.

Six months after they were hired – at a workshop last May – the company reported that schools here had 30 percent fewer exceptional student education teachers, and 40 percent fewer exceptional student teacher assistants, than “similar” school districts.

It also found a yawning gap in academic achievement between the so-called ESE students and general education students – 34 percent for third graders and 47 percent for seventh graders tested in 2014.

Since then there has been no report on what changes are occurring.

“Are we consulting with our teachers, because that is not what I am hearing from them,” Board member Laura Zorc asked at the recent workshop.

Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Pamela Dampier and Director of Exceptional Student Education Heather Clark – both hired in July 2016 – said the outside company hasn’t consulted with teachers yet, but will in the future.

Dampier said the state wants school districts to mainstream more students, with 82 percent of exceptional students placed in general education classes for at least 80 percent of the day. The district average is currently 74 percent, but several schools are exceeding the goal, which is good only if academic scores go up or at least stay the same.

The mainstreaming effort has been blamed for high teacher turnover and other problems at Gifford Middle School, where teachers say they have not been given the help or resources they need to effectively educate increased numbers of ESE students placed in their classes.

The number of exceptional education students in the district is increasing. This school year, of the 18,071 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, more than 14 percent or 2,640 come under the ESE heading.  That is up from about 2,520 the year before and 2,350 two years earlier.

Superintendent Mark Rendell said federal and state funding do not full cover ESE costs, providing about $4 million of the $6 million a year spent on exceptional student services.

On a positive note, the district’s exceptional-student drop-out rate was very low compared to the state average, with 4 percent dropping out compared to 19 percent statewide in 2014-2015.

However, students in the ESE program were expelled or suspended for more than 10 days almost four times more often than other students in 2014-2015.

Experts say bad behavior is often an indicator the ESE student’s needs are not being met.