Charleston special education review turns up problems, commendations
The state’s first on-site monitoring visit of Charleston’s special-education programs since 2004 turned up some red flags, but the problems weren’t nearly as serious or numerous as the last time the district was reviewed.
A team of about five state officials came to Charleston for two days in February to determine whether the district was in compliance with the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act, the law that governs how districts provide services to students with special needs. The district didn’t do anything wrong to trigger the visit; the state has a cycle in which it reviews districts, and it was Charleston’s turn.
“The purpose is not to play ‘Gotcha!’ with the school district,” said Jay W. Ragley, the state education department’s deputy superintendent for legislative and public affairs. “We’re here to provide technical assistance so they can better serve their students. It’s really an opportunity to help the district. It’s not an opportunity to punish them.”
The state found some problem areas, such as not ensuring parents were aware of certain meetings involving their children, but none of the issues necessitated a follow-up visit from the state. Penalties would come only if the district hasn’t corrected the problems within a year.
That’s a stark change from seven years ago, when Charleston County schools were threatened with the loss of 5 percent of its 2005-06 federal funding for disabled students if it didn’t correct its deficiencies.
“They’ve changed the way they are doing business in Charleston,” said Michelle Bishop, interim director of the state’s Office of Exceptional Children.
The on-site monitoring included a review of a sample of students’ files, as well as interviews with students, parents and district staff. If 90 percent of the reviewed files weren’t in compliance, it’s considered a “systemic finding.”
Nine broad areas were cited as systemic findings this year, and they mostly involved post-secondary goals and parent notification. The audit involves more than 750 small areas of compliance, so the chances of going into a district and finding nothing is slim, Bishop said.
In some cases, the district couldn’t provide documentation to prove what it said it had done. Charleston wasn’t using the state-preferred letter that allows parents to indicate whether they need an accommodation such as an interpreter, but that doesn’t mean the district didn’t actually provide those services, Bishop said.
“A lot of this on-site monitoring is looking for documentation,” she said. “The district may be doing it, but if they can’t show it, we don’t infer. We want the proof.”
In other cases, the district failed to follow the law’s requirement, such as district officials not checking a box on a document that let parents know their child’s transition to post-secondary education would be discussed at an upcoming meeting, Bishop said.
The state required Charleston school leaders to create a corrective action plan, which the district already submitted and had approved. The state also gave specific information about individual student files that need to be fixed, Bishop said.
The district received seven commendations, including parents who said they were pleased with the services their children received and educators who had specialized training in working with children with disabilities.
Lisa Herring, associate superintendent for academics and student support and intervention services, said she wants the district to hone in on postsecondary goals because that ties into the district’s overall goal of raising the graduation rate.
Those efforts aside, the district has started a new parent advisory council, and district leaders are hosting four parent fairs this spring to better inform parents about advocating for their special-needs children, said Cindy McCown, director of the district’s Department of Exceptional Children Services.
“This is part of our parent engagement and notification, so parents can be more informed and empowered,” she said.
Reach Diette Courrégé at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.