The Kentucky Department of Education recently approved a corrective action plan for Floyd County Schools, and officials say implementation is already underway.
The plan details requirements the school district must meet to correct findings of noncompliance that the KDE noted in an audit of the district’s special needs services earlier this year.
The district has until July 2019 to fulfill all requirements in the plan — which calls for a review of Individual Learning Plan (IEP) folders and several types of training for administrators, teachers and staff, as well as the development of “systemic” plans to ensure that state and federal requirements are met in the future. The district is also required, among other things, to review and/or revise its policies and determine whether some students who did not receive “free appropriate education,” as required, should be provided compensatory education.
The audit began after parents and local agencies alleged the district was failing to comply with the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The complaints included allegations that special education services were not provided in some facilities, the decisions to place students in special education programs were not made in compliance with laws, and, among other things, that the district was “over-identifying students” with special needs so they can receive accommodations on state tests.
The KDE staff substantiated “systemic findings of noncompliance” under the federal disabilities act, as well as dozens of violations of state regulations.
“Assessment tools and strategies applied by the district were not used for determining the educational needs of students,” the audit said. “Rather, special education was sought as a substitute for appropriate instruction so that accommodations could be used during statewide testing in the district.”
In the audit, the KDE reports that the district violated state regulations that specify how and why students are referred to special education. It said there was “sufficient evidence” to show “the district has employed numerous inappropriate practices to identify students for special education services.”
“The purpose of the inappropriate evaluation practices was to qualify students for accommodations so students can receive accommodations through an IEP (Individual Learning Plan) for state assessments, even though the students may not be truly eligible for IDEA services,” the audit said.
Through the corrective action plan, school district officials are charged with correcting those issues.
Larry Joe Begley, who oversees special education in the district, said the KDE gave him pre-approval to start some of the corrective measures, including the training of principals and Admission and Release Committee chairpersons and the review of the IEP folders that the KDE used in its audit.
He said the plan requires officials to review 65 student IEP folders that were pulled randomly by KDE auditors to ensure that corrections are made.
He said the district is going “above and beyond” that requirement, though, with a plan to review nearly 1,300 IEP folders in one year. Special education teachers will undergo training on Oct. 22, 25 and 29 on how to properly review the IEP folders, Begley said, and thereafter, they will review all 1,300 folders during annual reviews that must be held in IEP cases each year.
“We have a plan internally, that once we train every teacher in our buildings by Oct. 29, in the course of a calendar year, we will review the folder each time we have a meeting on a child,” Begley said, calling it part of the district’s “systemic plan” to ensure state and federal requirements are followed in the future.
When asked if that practice wasn’t done previously, he said, “The state requires 50 to 60 a year, randomly, but we want to be ambitious and review them all as we have meetings,” he said.
Begley said the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, the group that is hosting the folder review training for teachers, is also offering IEP training to all special education teachers and administrators on Oct. 10, 16 and 17 as part of the corrective action plan.
The plan requires several other trainings to be provided in Floyd County this year, including the training of regular teachers who provide Response-to-Intervention services for students.
District officials have already interviewed some parents to inform them that their child will not receive the same accommodations he or she received in the past.
During an interview this month, Superintendent Danny Adkins explained that the lack of supporting documentation was a major issue in the audit and some students were assigned accommodations that weren’t the “least restrictive,” as required by law.
He said while reviewing the IEP folders this year, staff will also review 504 plans—a program, similar to IEP, that helps students access the accommodations they need—to ensure these students have appropriate accommodations and that they are documented.
“We’re going back and looking at 504s and IEPs, and we’re making sure that they have the least restrictive environment for their accommodations. Whatever the least restrictive environment is that still helps that child, that’s what we’re looking at doing,” Adkins said. “Everybody just doesn’t get a reader and a scribe because that’s not what the least restrictive environment is. Like I said, with some students, it may be extra time. It may be extended time. It may be large-print books. It may be large print testing materials. Those are the least restrictive environments, and that’s what KDE has told us we have to do. So, we’ll be going back through all of our IEP folders, and look at our 504s as well.”
Begley said an annual review of all IEP folders should be “a natural part” of the process.
“The process is not intended for a child that has a disability to receive accommodations for the rest of their life,” he said. “The goal of special education, or specially-designed instruction, is to make that child independent and fade those accommodations out over time anyway.”
He said that effort will be a “point of emphasis” in the district.
“That is a point of emphasis, to make sure that these accommodations are discussed in depth each time we meet to make sure that we have a plan to fade these out so that we don’t carry accommodations on unnecessarily just because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” he said.
Begley said the district hopes to complete all corrective action plan requirements prior to the June 27, 2019, deadline, but noted that the KDE can extend that date.
When asked how difficult it would be for the district, he said, “I don’t think the word easy comes to mind, but it’s doable. It’s not an unrealistic goal. It’s going to be very time-consuming, but everything in that plan is doable. But it won’t be doable without focus and passion, of which I think Floyd County is full of.”
Officials say they have found no evidence to show that staff intentionally manipulated the special needs programs so students could get special accommodations on tests.
Former Superintendent Dr. Henry Webb denied that allegation, calling it “utterly ridiculous and false” and former interim Superintendent Steve Trimble, who was not employed while state tests were administered, said last month that he also did not see anything wrong.
“I didn’t see anything out of the way, anything different. Again, I wasn’t there very long, but I didn’t see anything out of the way that I thought was wrong,” he said. “I guess about all I saw was teachers working hard, and principals leading and kids working hard, that’s all I saw while I was there.”
Begley attributed some of the audit findings to communication issues and talked about the need to ensure that all schools follow the same policy. Adkins said he found cases where students hadn’t received appropriate accommodations, and those issues have already been resolved for a couple of students. He and other district officials attributed much of the noncompliance issues to a lack of documentation.
Floyd County Board of Education Chairperson Sherry Robinson said she was surprised by the audit, but that officials questioned the rising number of special needs staff in the past.
“We have asked questions in the past as to why we’re having to approve it, and when Mr. Trimble was here, there was actually a conversation with him where he even mentioned to the special education director at the time, you know, ‘This has been so many since I’ve been here. Something needs to give. You all need to, you know, we can’t afford to keep doing so many in para-education, you know. So, he even mentioned there was a lot of para-education positions being created.”
She said the board relied on what it was told when those questions were raised.
“So we just have to rely on what we’re being told, that, you know, kids are being identified, they’re being assessed, these numbers are being done, so we need this by law, we need this position,” she said.
She wants the public to know that the board of education cannot legally make school-level decisions and pointed out that the superintendent enforces policies in the district.
“I want the community to know and understand what our role is in this…The board’s role. Because we don’t have any control over what’s done at the school level... Our roles are hiring a superintendent, hiring a board attorney, making policies, not enforcing policies,” she said.
When he was approached about the audit last month, Dr. Webb said special education decisions were made at the school level, not the district level. KDE Spokesperson Nancy Rodriguez, however, reported in an email after that statement was published, “The findings of non-compliance is at the district-level, not the school level.”
The school district is still waiting on the results of a monitoring visit the KDE conducted during the 2018 state assessment. KDE testing allegation staff is reviewing “voluminous reports received by monitors” in Floyd, Jefferson, Jessamine and Morgan counties, and is not able to comment on the status of those visits until the review is completed, a press release from KDE said.
As the district works to fulfill requires of the corrective action plan, it is also seeking special education staff. The district has hired several staff recently, but more are needed.
“They’re leaving,” Adkins said. “We’ve lost two to Johnson County. One to Magoffin. Maybe one or two to Pike County. Now, we did create a position the other day, a special ed position, but here’s why, because we have to service our home hospital students with a special ed teacher, too, if they have an IEP and the ARC had just been allowing a regular education teacher to do that. Well, now, we actually have a home hospital special education teacher who will take care of those students. So, like I said, we’re following everything they’re giving us, but, there again, that’s another cost to the district, but it’s helping students. It doesn’t bother me to spend money if we’re helping kids.”
Begley feels completing the corrective action plan will help students in the future.
“I just feel like with all my heart when I say this, that a lot of it will be beneficial to the kids of Floyd County because, if nothing else, it’s going to force us to talk about things that we may not have talked about in the last four or five years to the level that we needed to talk about it,” he said.
In addition to the 1,300 students who have IEP plans, the district has 372 students with 504 plans.