What I Wish I Had Known About IEPs

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by Katie Moran

I wish I knew then what I know now.  My daughter’s superpower is dyslexia, or a specific learning disability in reading.  We’ve been working so hard to bring awareness this month in honor of #DyslexiaAwarenessMonth! She also has a diagnosis of dysgraphia, ADHD, and executive functioning disorder. 

I’m writing this for those parents at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the fight. If you’ve never been a parent in this fight, know that it’s intimidating and heartbreaking.  We need support and empathy. And I’m writing this to thank all the teachers that try to speak up but don’t have the resources to help in all the ways they want to; I know you are doing the best you can.  I’m writing this for the special education aides who listen and remind our kids that even though they are different, they are just as good as every other neurotypical kid.

Here are some tips I’ve found useful for a successful and productive Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting:  

  • Prepare: Request all test scores prior to the meeting.  This includes any standardized tests such as Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), Measures of Academic Progress for Reading (MAP-R), or Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA).  It could also be helpful to loop in the testing coordinator at your school when doing this. I find myself being caught off guard when this information is presented in the meeting (whether it be a shockingly low or high score) when school staff has had time to prepare. It’s also good to have all your child’s grades printed from the Schoolmax Family Portal the day you request the IEP meeting. I like to print them the week before the IEP meeting. That will allow you to identify inconsistencies if grades were input right before an IEP meeting, although you hope that would never be the case.  Ask who will be in attendance at the meeting. I always find this to be very important in my mental preparation. 
  • Listen:  This was a hard one for me to learn.  We all feel so passionate about our children and usually by the time we’ve requested our IEP/504 meeting, our kid has already been struggling in school for some time.  As parents, we have our own preconceived notions about our children, sometimes contrary to the information being presented in the meeting. However, it’s really important to take notes, fully listen, and ask follow up questions during the teacher’s presentation.  Working as a team is in the best interest of your child. You each have a unique perspective that together, has a lot to offer.
  • Evidence:  Keep your child’s school papers, and not just the bad ones.  I used to go to IEP meetings and it felt like teachers brought all of my child’s very best work and I brought all of my child’s worst work.  We were both proving a point. I have learned to bring work that I’m proud of and I bring a few pieces that highlight what I’d like to discuss about the IEP.
  • When you get overwhelmed: Ask for a minute.  It is okay to step out of that meeting and take a breath. Go outside. Call a friend and ask for advice if something doesn’t sound right.  Google it. Know your rights. It is okay to reschedule meeting if you have lost control. It is okay to cry.
  • Never sign your 504 or IEP at the meeting.  Take it with you and read it over, read it over many times.  Make sure you put everything in writing. What I mean when I say that is to send an email summary of the meeting within 24 hours of when the meeting took place.  If it’s not documented in that time frame in writing (and email counts), it never happened. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend hiring an advocate if you can afford it. The conversation is so much different when you have an advocate present. I understand that is a luxury not everyone can afford so here are some additional websites that can help you know your rights as you prepare for your meetings. An alternative is to bring a friend who can take detailed notes during the meeting.  Get a binder and track everything!  

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The Impact of Disproportionate Suspension of Students with Disabilities

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by Pamela Talley, Sarah Wayland, and Troy Sampson

For the last nine years, Prince George’s County has been suspending students with disabilities at twice the rate they suspend students without disabilities. Because of a punitive regulation in Federal Law (IDEA), this means that 15% of the Special Education budget (roughly $3.8 million each year) cannot be used to fund special education in our county.

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from Maryland Public School Suspensions by School and Major Offense Category, 2017-208, Maryland State Department of Education

To help you interpret the table above, in 2017 the total number of students enrolled in Prince George’s County Public Schools was 130,814, the number of Black or African American students was 75,818, and the number of students with disabilities was 14,999. That means that the suspension rate for All Students was 1.25%, for Black and African American Students it was 1.56%, and for disabled students the rate was 2.49%.

This may not sound surprising, but it’s important for parents, especially those who have children with disabilities, to understand the real implications. For the last nine years, as a penalty for suspending children with disabilities at a higher rate than their non-disabled peers, PGCPS has been forced to spend 15% of its Special Education budget on supports for students in general education. The Federal Government forbids the spending of this money on special education services. For a school system the size of PGCPS, the amount of money being withheld from our students who need the most support is approximately $3.8 million dollars per year.

Instead, the money must be spent on Coordinated Early Intervening Services (CEIS), which are :

” . . . services provided to students in kindergarten through grade 12 (with a particular emphasis on students in kindergarten through grade three) who are not currently identified as needing special education or related services, but who need additional academic and behavioral supports to succeed in a general education environment.

“The [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] IDEA (20 U.S.C. §1413(f)(2)) and its regulations (34 CFR §300.226(b)) identify the activities that may be included as CEIS:

(1) professional development for teachers and other school staff to enable such personnel to deliver scientifically based academic and behavioral interventions, including scientifically based literacy instruction, and, where appropriate, instruction on the use of adaptive and instructional software; and

(2) providing educational and behavioral evaluations, services, and supports, including scientifically based literacy instruction.”

(From: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/ceis-guidance.doc)

In a presentation to the PGCPS School Board on October 11th, 2018, Dr. Gwendolyn Mason reported the following:

Issue #3: Disproportionality

  • In summer 2016, a meeting was held with MSDE [Maryland State Department of Education] to discuss the overhaul of the CEIS program in PGCPS since the previous plan from 2009-2016 was misaligned to PGCPS areas of need.
  • Based on analysis of suspension and expulsion data, MSDE determined that PGCPS was significantly disproportionate in the disciplinary removal of students with disabilities compared to nondisabled students.
  • PGCPS must use 15% of IDEA Part B funds to develop and provide Coordinated Early Intervention Services (CEIS); over $26 million has been restricted to support the CEIS program.

(You can find a link to the Board of Education meeting on video, as well as supporting documents on the SECAC website here: http://secacpg.org/document-center/selected-presentation-handouts/)

This means that over the last nine years, $26+ million of IDEA funds were shifted from the PGCPS Department of Special Education Budget to the General Education Budget to support CEIS programming. This is because any program funded from this 15% penalty under CEIS (Coordinated Early Intervening Services) CANNOT be used to service a student with an Individualized Education Plan (or IEP – the legal document created for some students with disabilities that spells out the supports, accommodations, and services necessary for that student to be educated.)

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Prince George’s Schools Budget Questions Answered for FY 2019

Earlier this year, members of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools submitted questions about the Fiscal Year 2019 proposed operating budget for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGPCS). The Office of Budget and Management Services, under the direction of John Pfister, has prepared answers.

The questions and their answers are found below (and available in PDF format here). It may be helpful to refer to the proposed Operating Budget for Fiscal Year 2018, found here.

1. What is the average per student cost of the specialty programs below relative to the cost at neighborhood schools without any additional programs?

  • Language immersion
  • Performing Arts
  • TAG [Talented and Gifted]
  • Montessori

The average per student cost for specialty programs is provided below:

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2. Does PGCPS have non-resident students that attend PGCPS schools (from DC, adjacent counties)? If so, how much funding does PGCPS receive from those jurisdictions?

In FY 2017, Prince George’s County Public Schools received the following funding from other jurisdictions for non-resident students:

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NOTE: Students identified in this chart may be prorated based on the days in a non-resident status.

3. Are there any programs/resources geared towards expanding language exposure in neighborhood elementary schools?

It is the intent of this administration, when financially feasible, to expand language programs at the elementary school level. Currently, the following schools offer a world language.

Barack Obama ES
Judith P. Hoyer Montessori
Montpelier ES
Melwood ES
Rosaryville ES
Patuxent ES
Oaklands ES
Phyllis E. Williams Spanish Immersion
Fort Foote ES
University Park ES
Ardmore ES
Berwyn Heights ES
Paint Branch ES
Greenbelt ES
Accokeek Academy
Capitol Heights ES
Glenarden Woods ES
Heather Hills ES
Highland Park ES
Longfields ES
Mattaponi ES
Valley View ES
John Hanson Montessori
Robert Goddard Montessori

4. Does funding for expansion/continuity of specialty program include additional transportation needs?

The funds to support the expansion/continuity of specialty programs does, when necessary, include additional transportation needs. The expansions that are currently included in the FY 2019 Proposed Budget, however, do not require additional transportation funds.

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College Park Academy: A Look at the Data

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

A lively discussion at the April 25 Board of Education meeting focused on College Park Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Prince George’s County that benefits from a partnership with the University of Maryland. The argument centered around a proposal that the school reserve 35% of its seats for students living in a “catchment area,” a geographic area that includes neighborhoods close to the university. (Watch video of the entire discussion here.)

College Park Academy was praised for its comparative success on standardized tests — and rightly so. “As many of you already know, we have scored exceptionally high on state assessments,” said Executive Director Bernadette Ortiz-Brewster, “consistently for four years with our blended learning model.” Interim Principal Steve Baker gave details on the school’s impressive standardized test performance (watch the video here).

But no discussion of the school’s success is complete without comparing the population served by College Park Academy with that of the school district at large. In short, the public schools in Prince George’s County tend to serve a higher percentage of kids who have risk factors that may increase the probability of academic underperformance.

The table below shows the percentages of students at College Park Academy needing various special services, as reported by the Maryland Report Card, compared with the percentages of all PGCPS middle school1 students needing special services.

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Data from the 2016 Maryland Report Card. “* *” indicates no students or fewer than 10 students in category, or “* *” indicates the percentage for the category is either ≤5 or ≥95 and the corresponding counts have been suppressed.

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Every Comment From the Jan 24 Budget Hearing

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

The Prince George’s County Board of Education held its first public hearing on the fiscal year 2018 operating budget on January 24, at Charles Herbert Flowers High School. A Board of Education budget work session immediately preceded the hearing.

Fifteen members of the public spoke at the hearing. Their comments are recapped below:

  1. At 1:45:23 in the video, special educator: Increase the amount of funding for special education beyond what is proposed in the budget. “Special educators are leaving the county and field of special education in droves.” Special educators spend twelve to fourteen hours a week on legally required compliance paperwork. “Time spent on compliance paperwork is time spent out of the classroom and away from servicing our students.
  2.  At 1:48:02, special educator, paraprofessional in autism program: Adequately budget for our special education and autism programs. Our special education programs are not adequately staffed to safely manage the students. Special educators are close to burnout. “How many times must I document that a student ran away or tried to throw himself down the stairs before an additional staff person is approved? Also, when a specialist comes to observe our students to assess staffing or proper placement, why not have him or her actually do the job for an entire day instead of making an assessment based on a 15 or 20 minute slice of time?”
  3. At 1:50:57, special educator: It has become increasingly hard to do the job without adequate staffing. Describes a “day in the life of a special education teacher,” including assessing newly referred students to special education, writing IEPs, preparing paperwork for meetings, collecting data, collaborating with teachers, completing follow-up paperwork for IEP meetings, writing progress reports, providing assessment accommodations for students, as well as general school duties such as lunch duty. It is often necessary to spend several hours over the weekend working on
  4. At 1:53:42, special educator: “Special educators often fulfill two distinct jobs: We’re case managers, and we’re specialized instructors. However, we only have 45 minutes of planning time to fulfill these dual roles. . . .The overwhelming amount of time required to complete paperwork diminishes the amount of time that we have to provide supports in the classroom, with less specialized instruction for students with disabilities. . . I’m here today because so many of my colleagues leave the field of special education each year, due to the overwhelming pressure of compliance, as paperwork often becomes a priority over teaching.” Increased special education funding is needed for additional special educators, instructional specialists, and IEP clerks.
  5. At 1:56:43, parent of 9th grader at Bowie High School who has recently transitioned from private school: “As my daughter complained about sweltering classrooms at the start of the school year and frigid classrooms last month, I have to ask, is academic excellence really a priority? As my daughter has had a substitute teacher for science the entire semester and about three weeks for math, I must ask, how can we expect her to excel on the standardized tests . . . ?” Pay attention to a hierarchy of needs. There are tough choices to be made. Should such items as culture training for teachers (at around $610,000) and additional world languages funding ($1.2 million) compete for basic needs such as heating and cooling, or instruction in math and English?
  6. At 1:59:45, parent of a 5th grade Heather Hills Elementary student: There is confusion surrounding next year’s placement of some rising middle school Talented and Gifted (TAG) students from Heather Hills Elementary. Students who had anticipated attending the TAG center at Kenmoor Middle School next year received a letter stating that they must enroll in the TAG program at Benjamin Tasker Middle School instead. However, there has been no other mention of a TAG center at Benjamin Tasker Middle School. After numerous phone calls, parents were able to learn nothing about a potential TAG center at Tasker. The request is that students should be permitted to remain at Kenmoor until the TAG center at Tasker is fully operational.
  7. At 2:02:24, community member and parent of PGCPS alumni: Was hired in 2011 as a senior purchasing specialist, and subsequently discovered and reported waste, fraud, and abuse in the school system. The Strategic Plan implemented in 2016 and scheduled to go through 2018 does not actually address the goals of academic excellence, high-performing workforce, safe and supportive environments , family and community engagement, and organizational effectiveness. “How is it that we have a plan that went from 2016 to 2018, and you have not shown us any data or statistics that support what you’re doing?”
  8. At 2:05:25, community member and “watchdog advocate”: The budget document contains several discrepancies, and it is difficult, in some cases, to track where the money is going. For example, 17 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) positions are listed at a cost of $2.8 million to develop the Strategic Plan and obtaining grants in support of the plan.
  9. At 2:08:13, student at Whitehall Elementary School: School lacks adequate heating. “It is hard being so cold in my classroom. Sometimes when I write, I shiver . . . It can be hard to take tests too, because all I can think about is how cold I am.”
  10. At 2:09: 14, PTA president at Whitehall Elementary School: There are currently 833 open work orders related to heat for the 208 schools in the county. Whitehall’s heat is not working properly, even after months of requests for repairs. Classroom temperatures have been documented to be as low as 49 degrees, and kids are wearing coats and long johns in the classroom. Whitehall Elementary is overenrolled, with 576 students at a school that has a capacity for 420 students. “Please consider allowing room in your budget to repair so many of our buildings that our failing your scholars. You cannot continue to have high expectations academically while requiring such low maintenance standards of yourselves.” 

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Charter Schools, Specialty Programs, and the Issue of Equitable Access

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

The lively discussion about equitable access to College Park Academy that took place during last month’s Board of Education meeting (beginning at 1:51:27 in the video) is must-watch TV—and not just for the moment when Board Chair Segun Eubanks told Edward Burroughs to “shut up and let the parliamentarian answer the question (at 1:54:50).”

Board Member Edward Burroughs (District 8) proposed amending the resolution granting a one-year extension to College Park Academy, a public charter school for students in grades six through nine which offers blended learning in partnership with the University of Maryland. Referring to the University of Maryland’s request that some slots be allotted to the children of University employees and to residents of College Park, Burroughs emphasized that all students, including “our most disadvantaged students,” should have access to the charter school, “not the select few, not those that come from the elite class in the county or in College Park.”

Burroughs’s amendment—which was adopted after a vote by the Board—adds the clause, “whereas the Board of Education wants to ensure equity and access for all students, regardless of socioeconomic status or zip code,” to the language of the resolution.

Contributing to the conversation surrounding equitable access, Board Member Jeana Jacobs (District 5) raised the question of whether children with special needs were being well-served at the school: “You do a review of our special needs population that’s there. There is some suggestion that they’re encouraged to home school or go to their neighborhood school.” (For Jacobs’s remarks, go to 2:06:20 in the video.)

What do the numbers say? Are “our most disadvantaged students” well-represented at College Park Academy? Data from the 2015 Maryland Report Card suggest that College Park Academy serves disproportionately few students needing special services, particularly when compared with the six closest neighboring middle schools (see map of area school locations here).

The table below shows the percentages of students who qualify for Free and Reduced Meals (FARMs), who have limited English proficiency (LEP), and who receive special education services, respectively, at the seven schools listed.

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Percentages of students qualifying for Free and Reduced Meals, with Limited English Proficiency, receiving special education. An asterisk (*)  is used to indicate fewer than ten students in a category1. Source: 2015 Maryland Report Card, “Students Receiving Special Services”

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Skyline ES Parents Fight to Keep Autism Program, School Open

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

Parents of children in the autism program at Prince George’s County’s Skyline Elementary School gave emotional testimony during last night’s Board of Education meeting.

Below, I have noted the points in the board meeting video where each parent who spoke on behalf of their autistic child began their comments. I have also included a few sentences from each parent’s testimony.

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