Better integration, improved programs are goals
By Marcy Stamper
Special education staff and services have been reorganized at the Methow Valley elementary and high schools, with a new head of special education for both schools to help integrate the special education program with other current initiatives, including development of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.
Local administrators hope the changes will also strengthen special education in the district overall.
“This is an area within our district that has historically been described as challenged and needing improvement — for years,” said Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable. One goal is to find ways to adequately staff the program and provide the necessary training despite limitations in state funding, he said.
Leanne Lafferty, who joined the district earlier this year to direct special education at Liberty Bell High School, is now assistant director of special education for the entire district.
Jim Cordell, who was the district’s special education coordinator and psychologist last year — and who started in the same two roles this year — will continue as psychologist for the district. The psychologist tests and evaluates students and helps determine eligibility for special education and other accommodations, according to Venable.
Special education services in the Methow Valley have been provided through a contract with Education Service District (ESD) 112 in Vancouver since 2003. The ESD handles special ed for 27 districts throughout the state to provide a greater array of services for small districts by sharing costs, staff and other resources, said Mary Mertz, associate superintendent for the ESD.
Mertz also serves as director of special education for all the districts they work with. Each district under her has an assistant director, a position formerly called coordinator.
With the Methow Valley district’s focus on developing new units that blend subject areas — part of the school’s application to be an IB school — Lafferty’s experience was a better match, said Mertz. Having Lafferty as assistant director will build continuity among all programs, she said. “It was a conscious decision, based on Leanne’s work in program development and in different settings,” said Mertz.
In administering the special ed program, the ESD coordinates with staff here, but the arrangement is different from the way Methow administrators work with other staff. “It’s a unique dynamic — these are employees in our schools, but they’re actually employed by another organization,” said Venable.
Among Lafferty’s duties will be to analyze the special education programs in the district to identify strengths as well as areas that need attention, said Venable. At the end of the process, which will include consultation with parents, students and teachers, Lafferty will develop and implement a plan for special ed.
Venable said the district has been working closely with the ESD. “We want to see improvements made to our program, and we need strong leadership and support in doing so,” which the ESD provides, he said.
In special education, all decisions and individualized learning plans are made by a team that includes the classroom teacher, administrators, special education staff and parents, said Mertz. The team evaluates a student to identify the best supports, which could involve speech therapy, a reading or math specialist, or behavioral interventions, for example. “The thing about special ed is that there is a process for everything,” said Mertz.
Lafferty will work two days each week in the Methow Valley. The rest of her week is spent in Waterville, Orondo, and at another ESD in Wenatchee.
The Vancouver ESD offered Cordell the option of an additional assignment in another school district to maintain his full-time status, but he elected to remain part-time in the Methow Valley, said Mertz.
Lafferty has been a speech and language pathologist for other districts in North Central Washington for at least five years and became a special ed coordinator in Waterville and Orondo last year.
Cordell is in his second year with the district. He was a school psychologist and special education director for more than 30 years in California.
Staff changes and instability
The school district and ESD had already made some staffing changes at the beginning of this school year, switching special ed teachers at the high school and elementary school. Cordell started out the year as coordinator of special ed for the entire district. He was reassigned to oversee just the elementary school when Lafferty was brought in at the high school level. The new assignments took effect in mid-October.
The changes come after an unsettled period in the 2014-15 academic year, when both Cordell and a special education teacher — who is no longer with the district — were placed on administrative leave.
The ESD placed Cordell on leave while an investigator followed up on allegations that he had inappropriately restrained disruptive students. The investigator also looked into complaints that he had made decisions about students’ educational plans without following procedures.
The investigation found no evidence to support the allegations that Cordell’s use of restraints had not followed ESD policy. It also found insufficient evidence to show he had intentionally misled subordinates or parents. After a six-week leave of absence, Cordell returned to the school in January of this year.
“The challenges in communication and the conflicted interpersonal relationships between Mr. Cordell and staff appear to have played a significant role in the allegations,” wrote Marnie Allen, executive director of Human Resources and Legal Services for the ESD in a summary of the investigation in February.
Another investigation last year into allegations of professional misconduct and poor classroom management by a special education teacher in the elementary school culminated with her voluntarily resigning before any official resolution was reached, said Venable.
Documents about administrative leave for the two employees were obtained by the Methow Valley News through a public records request. The documents were heavily redacted to protect the identity of students and others involved, and details of the situations are not clear.
Personnel issues from last year have been resolved, said Venable. “We have a very capable, committed staff and are now focused on the program as a whole,” he said.