Parents will have more input on how programs work

By Marcy Stamper

Parents of students receiving special-education services at the Methow Valley School District can expect to have more input in how the program runs — and how well it is working to educate their children — as part of a new advisory group and the district’s increased focus on special-ed services.

The advisory group grew out of a meeting about special education and long-standing concerns about how well students’ needs are being met.

Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable spent his first six months in the district almost three years ago “listening and learning” to find out about the schools’ strengths and weaknesses. One recurring theme was shortcomings in special-education services, Venable told the two dozen parents and community members who attended the meeting on Feb. 19.

“There was a general frustration from parents about a regular lack of clarity associated with the type of special-education services available or being provided,” said Venable in an interview after the meeting. “Most of the issues centered around a lack of clear communication,” he said.

Specific concerns focused on individualized learning plans and objectives for students in the special-education program, and whether these plans are clear, appropriate and attainable, said Venable.

The February meeting was a first step toward bringing together parents and school staff to improve communication and understand issues in special education, said Venable.

Before the parent meeting, the district had already looked at how the special-education department functions internally as a team and at the role of general-education teachers, said Venable. “We’ve worked behind the scenes over the past year to position staff to best serve our students. We’re now at a place to see how to work with families to make sure they’re partners,” he said.

In an interview, Venable acknowledged the importance of attention to special ed when he pointed to a comment on Facebook about the parent meeting that said, in essence, “It’s about time.”

The special-education staff includes the district’s assistant special education director Leanne Lafferty and three full-time teachers. Part-time staff consists of a speech and language pathologist and a school psychologist, who evaluates students and helps develop individualized educational programs.

Local administrators, along with those at the Education Service District in Vancouver, which administers special-ed services for the Methow Valley School District, restructured the department this academic year, replacing the former special education coordinator/psychologist and switching some teachers between the elementary and high schools.

Special education refers to a funding source that provides students who have disabilities access to specially designed instruction and related services, according to Venable.

Defining roles and success

The parent meeting was facilitated by Greg Abell, a mediator who specializes in educational issues, particularly those involving special education. Abell worked in special ed before becoming a mediator 20 years ago and has an adult child who received special-education instruction.

He started with a presentation about the value of collaboration between administrators, teachers and parents to make education successful for all students and then asked attendees to share their concerns and goals.

Parents said there is a need to define appropriate roles for parents and teachers. Some said they feel they are expected to fill gaps in their children’s education.

Both parents and teachers said people may have different definitions of how to define “success” for individual students and students in general.

Many school districts and educators devote considerable time to creating two separate systems, one for general education and one for special education, said Abell, although that was supposed to change 10 years ago, he said. “It’s really all general ed with special supports, but we didn’t do a good job of explaining that to the general-ed teachers,” he said.

In this district, the aim is for students who receive special-ed services to spend the majority of time in the general-education classroom, said Venable.

The law guarantees a free and appropriate public education but there are different interpretations of what that means, said Abell. Parents see what their kids need and, while school districts see those same needs, they are also addressing the needs of many other students, he said.

Most conflicts in special education arise from the fact that the system doesn’t meet all needs and is not fully funded, said Abell. Parents and educators need to accept that they won’t be able to resolve all these conflicts, he said. He urged them to find ways to move forward to serve the needs of all students.

“This has been an area needing attention, and folks are pleased to see the district making this a priority,” said Venable.

Developing a philosophy

As part of its candidacy for two International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, the district is developing policies in areas including special education, assessment, languages, and academic integrity and honesty, said Venable.

The district will focus on how the staff serves students eligible for special-education services and related policies and philosophy at their professional day in March.

The district will also look at how to integrate special ed with IB, said Lafferty. As teachers design new interdisciplinary units in the IB model, they will work with special-ed teachers to identify supports so that all students can participate successfully, said Venable. Supports can range from audio versions of textbooks to changes in testing methods to special writing materials.

The district is also expanding its life skills and transitional programs. Life skills help students who have more significant disabilities and transitional services will assist students with further education or work after graduation, said Venable.

The district will invite a group of parents who attended the first meeting to help develop a charter for the new special-education parent-advisory group, said Venable. The charter and dates for future meetings will be posted on the district’s website at methow.org.