Superintendent's Blog

Big Report (Part 3)

Greetings,

Over the last few weeks I have sent out emails to parents with active emails associated with their student’s enrollment information. This week we are continuing the effort to share information about what we are doing, and the ways Pima Schools are changing and developing. As mentioned in Part I of this report, one of the steps we have taken to positively affect their experience involves increasing the stability of the leadership team that runs our schools. Part 2 focused on the steps that have been taken to improve the financial stability of Pima schools. This weeks report illustrates some of the steps we have taken to address the needs of students who are struggling because of special needs. Future installments will address efforts to improve demonstration of academic proficiency; ability to attract and retain quality teachers; and ability to affect the policies, rules, and laws that affect our students and our schools. The goal in each area is the same — improve student achievement and our capacity to prepare students to be college or career ready by the time they graduate. Everything we do must be focused on this vision if we are to accomplish the mission our community has charged us with; "To provide a quality education for all students, in a safe and nurturing environment, in partnership with parents and our community." Since this report is extremely lengthy, I am breaking it up into six segments and sending out one a week. The segments will also be posted on the Superintendent’s blog at www.pimaschools.org.

PART III - Special Education Services

In 2015 the school board determined that we needed to take steps to improve our special education program. Between 2000 and 2015 Pima had seen almost a 100% increase in the number of students eligible for special education services. We had also seen a three hundred percent increase in student with severe cognitive disabilities. We were still offering the same level of service in 2015 that we had employed in 2000. At that time we had one special education teacher at the high school and one at the elementary school. Between them we had

three aides assigned to work in our resource rooms. Students at the Junior High walked over to the high school when they needed help. A growing number of parents were relating how when they went to the principal to express concerns about possible disabilities they were told that their child would not be tested. This was happening because the principals were finding it increasingly hard to keep special education teachers as the demands on those positions were growing out of control. The increased participation rates also meant that paperwork was stacking up. Special education teachers were having to spend so much of their time working on paperwork that they hardly ever had time to enjoy helping students be more successful. Since then we have made a series of modifications to our approach to special education.

First, we arranged for a separate special education teacher to take responsible for drafting the written Individualized Education Plans. This is the majority of the paperwork that was consuming our teacher’s time. Initially we contracted with outside specialists, and eventually included this responsibility in the job description of the Special Education Director position we created in 2016. This has enabled our special education teachers to focus on serving the needs of their students — an arrangement that is better for the teacher and the student.

Second, we revamped our Child Study process. We determined that the process for determining if a child needed evaluation to determine if they might need extra help to overcome a learning disability was flawed. When a parent or teacher expresses concerns that a child might be performing at a lower level because of a learning disability they are referred to our Child Study Team coordinator. This process now exists completely separate from the special education department and the administration. The coordinator starts a well documented ninety day process that gathers information from the parent and teacher to determine if a series of classroom modifications can enable the student to be successful. If not then we know that a formal evaluation is needed to better understand the needs of the student. Through this process we are able to ensure that those students who need special education services receive those services. As we have put a process in place that clearly spells out to teachers and parents the pathway to determining eligibility, a dramatic increase in the number of students referred has taken place. Full evaluations cost money and we have an obligation to ensure they are done when needed and only when they are needed. Students who are referred for testing are assessed. If it is evident that a disability exists an IEP is put in place and supplemental services are provided through the Special Education department.

Third, as we saw an increase in referrals for special education, we recognized the need to add staff to meet the need. In the 2015-16 budget the school board approved the addition of a second special education teacher at the elementary school. Because of the lack of special education teachers in The Gila Valley it was the 2016-17 school year before the position was filled. During the 2015-16 school year we added two special education aid positions at the elementary school, two at the high school and one at the junior high to support students with special needs. At the beginning of the 2016-17 school year we hired two teachers to serve the needs of our special education students at the elementary school. This brought our staffing level to where it is now. Currently we have one teacher with two aides working in the K-3 resource room at the elementary school, we have one teacher with one and a half aides working in the 4-6 resource room at the elementary school, three aides under the direct supervision of the special education director working at the junior high, and one special education teacher working with students at the high school. Because special education students are generally not working at the same level as their grade level peers, students are assigned to resource rooms at the elementary school based on ability not grade level. With this additional investment in special education support we are also able to reduce the frequency with which we are referring students to the Dan Hinton School. The Dan Hinton School exists to provide services for those students with the highest level of need. They are generally students that we are incapable of serving in a regular classroom with resource room support. In the past we have had to refer students to the Dan Hinton School for services because we were unable to meet their needs due to a lack of resources. By devoting more resources to serving our special education population we are able to meet the needs of those students within the district. When students are referred to the Dan Hinton School we have to pay tuition to cover the costs of the services they receive. There is a balance between spending more on in-district services and the cost of referrals to address the lack of in-district spending. We have moved closer to the balance point, and are doing a better job of meeting the needs of our students.

These steps have improved our ability to serve the needs of the 15% of our students who are experiencing extraordinary challenges due to a learning disability, but they also are benefiting our non-disabled students. Under the previous arrangement teachers were required to provide more services to special needs students in the regular classroom. Since these students have tremendous needs, this meant that other students in the classroom were receiving a decreased amount of attention. During the time that special education students are receiving lessons in the resource room aimed at helping them to grow based on their needs, the students in the regular classroom are receiving the attention that they need to be more successful. It might seem like we are spending more money on a few students at the cost of many others, but by providing the services our special education students need all students are benefiting. 

This is the third in a six part series aimed at helping those who want to know more about the steps being taken at Pima Unified School District to achieve the mission by providing a quality education for all students, in a safe and nurturing environment, in partnership with parents and our community. The other parts will be sent in coming weeks, and the entire report will be available on the district website at www.pimaschools.org