Thursday, October 1, 2015

Special Education Programming

Two weeks ago I wrote an article revisiting the concept of categorical funding. Within that article, I shared that our special education expenses for the year that just ended were in excess of $1.5 Million. Considering that total general fund expenditures for this year were $7.4 Million, that is a significant percentage of our total (20%). However, students served in special education programs are not tied to the same per pupil limitations ($6,541 in Hudson this year), and therefore the normal cap of spending authority for Iowa public schools does not apply. Depending on the student served in the program and their specific needs, students are weighted from 1-3. For example, a student with minimal needs may be weighted at 1.72. A student with moderate learning needs may be weighted at 2.21, and a student with significant educational needs is weighted at the maximum of 3.74. This means that a student with a 3.74 weighting wouldn't generate $6,541, but would instead generate $24,463.34. That is a lot for one student, but believe it or not that often isn't enough for the neediest of our students! We'll discuss why that is in a minute.

But first, why aren't special education programs limited by normal spending authority limitations? Because special education law is governed by the federal statute known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In this law, a students education is guided by what is known as an individualized educational plan (IEP). This educational plan is designed and developed by a team of people that include the teachers working with the student, consultants from the AEA, the building principal, and the parents. From time to time additional team members may be added as the need arises. When appropriate, the student also participates in the discussion. The IEP outlines what educational services will be provided, by whom, and any other factors that are of pertinent value. The plan also specifies what the learning difficulty is and how instruction will be designed to meet the specific and individual needs of that student.

As you have probably already surmised, special education programming is more expensive than general education programming. There are multiple reasons for this, but for starters it is important to note that special education classes are much smaller than general education classes. The specific size of the class is determined by the teachers case load and they never reach the capacity of a typical general education classroom. The higher the weighting of the student, the smaller the class size. Further, some of our students may require the assistance of an adult one on one during the day, and as a result have a paraprofessional that is assigned to them. In the majority of cases, our students are served right here in Hudson. However, for some of our students we either don't have the capacity to meet their specific needs or we don't offer the very specialized programming that will best meet the needs of that individual. We are very lucky to have some excellent options in our area to serve these students!

The process to identify students for specialized education is quite lengthy and very involved. It includes the collection of a vast data set over an extended period of time, many meetings with a team of educators and the principal, and having the classroom teacher try and test multiple teaching strategies to see if there are other factors that might be impacting the child's education that fall outside the realm of special education. While this is oftentimes frustrating for the parents, student, and even classroom teacher it is important the process is followed. At the end of the process, we must ensure that we are serving those who truly qualify for services. Because we are so committed to getting this right, we have to take our time. Also, since this is governed by IDEA and funded in part with federal money, we have to ensure that we are not over identifying students. As a general guideline, special education populations in schools should not exceed 10%. In Hudson, we are oftentimes above that, most recently we were hovering right around 12%, The good news here is that as we identify our students in the elementary, by the time they reach the higher grades they begin to 'age out' of the programming. That is a testament to the hard work of our educators and the effectiveness of our programming. The goal is always to get students to a point where they don't need special education.

Finally, if you believe your child is experiencing difficulty in learning, please contact your child's teacher or principal.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fair Winds and Following Seas

As far as students are concerned our school year did get off to a good start. For an explanation of why and how that can be true in spite of all the friction, I might refer you to my September 2nd post. Nevertheless, we had to contend with quite a distraction the last several weeks. The school board meeting on September 16th provided much needed closure and I am confident that we will now move on as a school district. Instead of continuing to belabor the issue, I instead will let the content and context of the press releases speak for themselves. Both are available on our website. As a bookend, we would be remiss if we didn't acknowledge the deeply held opinions on both sides and reaffirm the idea that all voices are important, provided that they are respectful and accurate in their dissent or concurrence. Finally, I want to take this opportunity to thank the faculty and staff for their professional conduct throughout, their ability to always stay above the line, and for their complete voluntary and unrequested show of support.

Now we get to hit the reset button. Each September, the school board has the opportunity to hold it's annual organizational meeting and start over. And every other year we hold a school board election. It is by mere happenstance that we now have this chance to refocus our work and clearly state once again that our Core Purpose is to 'Create Learning Environments That Result in Success for All Students'. As you are all aware, Director Tanya Higgins decided early on that she would not seek re-election to the board, and Director David Ball successfully sought and was elected to her seat. Incumbent Karyn Finn is now beginning her second term. 

Following the election and in advance of the organizational meeting we hold the 'Final Meeting of the Retiring Board'. Part ceremonial and part statutory, we largely view this as a time to honor and recognize those who's service is coming to an end. 

President Griffith presents Emeritus Director Higgins
with a plaque honoring her service to the school board.
So as we begin this new term, I would like to first start out by thanking Director Higgins for her work on behalf of the Hudson Community School District these last four years. Tanya was a fantastic member of the board that always understood the vital role she played in governance of the school district. As a leader, she understood full well the firewall that exists between governance and administration and always respected that line. Not comfortable with the status quo, she challenged me as the superintendent and wasn't afraid to disagree. Further, anyone who is currently serving or has served in the past knows full well that the work of a school board member is usually a thankless job, and as all have been reminded the last couple of weeks it can be a stressful job! The amount of knowledge and information that a board member must digest on a regular basis to prepare for the board meeting often includes board packets that are in excess of 100 pages, and to assume the work of a board member only requires one business meeting a month is naive. 

There has been a lot to celebrate during Tanya's time on the board. We can point to many facility upgrades, new and research based curricular material, an improved financial position, and the implementation of our connected learning project. You can see Director Emeritus Higgins' leadership along with that of her colleagues in many of these successes that we can celebrate in our district. 

In the Navy, during a change of command, the retirement of a sailor, or commissioning of a ship, the phrase 'Fair Winds and Following Seas' is used to wish good luck and fortune on our next voyage in life. It seems fitting here to use that same quote here as we thank Tanya for her service and seat our new board.

I am excited for the future of the Hudson Community School District and look forward to working with this new board! We have a lot of exciting decisions to make in the coming months and years.

Board of Directors for the Hudson Community School
District. Pictured from left to right: President Jerry Griffith,
Vice President Karyn Finn, Directors Liz Folladori,
David Ball, and Traci Trunck.