Problems, bigger progress with race and special ed

Seth Jovaag

Since 2006, one school district in Wisconsin has been reprimanded each year by the state for “significantly” over-identifying black students as having a disability – Verona.

It’s not a proud distinction, but district leaders haven’t shied away from the problem. And progress has been made, particularly in the past year, officials say.

Five years ago, black students here were 3.2 times more likely than their white peers to be identified as having a disability. That ratio has fallen every year since. This year, it was 2.23.

That’s still above the “risk ratio” threshold of 2, which state education officials define as “disproportionate.” As a result, Verona in April earned what has become an annual warning letter from the state Department of Public Instruction.

Thirty-five other Wisconsin districts earned similar letters, according to DPI, but only Verona has been chided every year since 2006 for having “significantly disproportionate” identifications of specific racial groups or ethnicities.

Still, improvements in were noted in the DPI letter, which commended the leadership of superintendent Dean Gorrell and Erin Kuehn-Schettler, district director of student services.

The letter applauded the district for improving how it evaluates students deemed in need of special education and offering more staff training to remedy the problem.

Kuehn-Schettler said school psychologists, diagnosticians and special education teachers have developed a more standardized approach to evaluating students in the past year. And more training is being offered to help Verona’s mostly white, middle-class staff identify how their lesson plans or behavior expectations can unintentionally miss the mark with kids of color or different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I’ve heard comments from teachers like, ‘Oh, I never even thought about that, maybe I was making an assumption about this kid that wasn’t correct,’” Kuehn-Schettler said.

Few penalties
The over-representation of black students in special education is a national problem. Federal laws changed in 2004 to require schools to improve their ratios.

Clearly, some kids need special education. But sometimes they just need a specific intervention to resolve a skill deficit. Pulling them away from a general classroom can limit their exposure to rigorous coursework, Kuehn-Schettler said.
“Our goal is to identify correctly, but not when it’s not appropriate,” she said. “That’s always the juggle. Because you don’t want to miss kids that truly have disabilities.”

The DPI warnings carry few specific penalties, other than outlining how districts should attend conferences, invite expert speakers and improve staff training to rectify improper ratios.

In addition, the “disproportionately” tag forces the district to spend 15 percent –about $132,000 annually – of federal special education funding on those efforts.

But that’s something many districts do already, said Kuehn-Schettler. She came to VASD in 2011 from Middleton-Cross Plains, which wasn’t flagged by DPI on this issue but decided to spend 15 percent of the federal funds on similar efforts, anyway, as a matter of good practice.

Gorrell agreed with that approach, saying that money spent on preventing false identifications is well spent.

Verona’s improvement over the last year has freed it from more “proscriptive” dictates from DPI on how to spend the money, Kuehn-Schettler said. And because the district has a solid plan, that’s a good thing, she said.

“I think we’re at the point where we know what we’ve got to do, we don’t need someone telling us what to do. We just need to get it done.”

‘Work to do’
Despite making gains last year, Verona did not improve in one specific area.

Last year, 34 black students were identified as having learning disabilities, an umbrella term covering an array of neurological disorders that can impair the ability to read, write, speak or do math. Black students were statistically five times more likely than whites to have that label.

In that category, Verona remained, in state parlance, “significantly disproportionate” because it surpassed a 4-to-1 ratio.

But in other specific “disability areas” – such as cognitive or emotional and behavior disorders – VASD in the past year fell below the 2-to-1 threshold for black students for the first time in years.

The district is doing a better job of helping teachers find strategies to work with kids, rather than just identifying them for special education, Kuehn-Schettler said.

Each school has a reading and math specialist and a “learning resource coordinator” to assist in that effort. A tutoring program for grades K-1 has helped, too. Small things add up, too, such as a teacher who provides an extra chart or calculator for a student struggling with mathematics, rather than referring him or her for a special education evaluation.

In addition, Verona worked with several Dane County school districts to standardize how it evaluates kids. Using that system, it found roughly 60 percent of special-education students who transferred to Verona from other districts had been improperly identified.

Kuehn-Schettler shot down the notion that VASD is under-identifying black students for special education to improve its ratios.

In fact, she said that if the ratios stay above 2-to-1 but are accurate, she’s OK with that.

“I’ve told the staff this, too, that I would love to get to a point where I could say to DPI that if you were to pick any file from our special education kids, you would see evidence that this is truly a child with a disability,” she said.

“I care less about (reaching the) one-to-one (ratio); I care more about that we’re accurate in identifying.”

Meanwhile, VASD continues to grapple with a separate, but related issue. Black students with disabilities are disproportionately expelled or suspended from school.  Between 2009 and 2012, 72 black students received either of those penalties, compared with just 33 white students. That discrepancy also generated a rebuke in the DPI letter.

To improve, the district is doing more to teach and model behavior to students through a national program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Sugar Creek Elementary School was the first to implement it in 2010, which school leaders say helped decrease office referrals by more than half.

“There’s still work to do” to improve Verona’s systems, Kuehn-Schettler. But she said it’s clear the district won’t sweep the bad news under the rug.

Gorrell said he’s not worried that the DPI warnings will tarnish the district’s image.

“I consider it motivating,” he said. “It has really focused the spotlight on our identification process. … If a kid is misidentified as having special needs, that’s a big deal.”

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