In the October 2011 edition of the Notebook, we described how deep state funding cuts and related school district budget shortfalls may imperil services to students with disabilities across Pennsylvania. But special education is not an optional program for public schools, and Philadelphia's are no exception.
Federal law and state law obligate public schools to provide eligible students with disabilities-appropriate special education services. Yet Philadelphia and other school districts in the state often struggle to provide children with disabilities the supports they need in order to make adequate academic progress.
According to Philadelphia's 2010-2011 PSSA scores, only one in four children with IEPs in grades 3 through 5 can read at the proficient level or above. Things get even worse by high school. Only 17 percent of students in the District with IEPs in 11th grade are proficient in reading. These numbers are particularly disturbing in light of the fact that the overwhelming majority of students in the District who are eligible for special education have just mild to moderate learning disabilities, according to state data.
How can the District address these disparities and think more strategically about improving special education services?
First, the District's executive director of special education should be a member of the District's top leadership team. Excluding this position from the team will only exacerbate the weak management and accountability structures currently in place. The director should be a key party in all aspects of District leadership, from teaching and learning initiatives to the facilities master plan.
Second, the District must revisit its recent dismissal of all the special education case managers who worked out of the Area Academic Offices. These staffers served a crucial role as problem-solvers and troubleshooters for building-level staff within their area. The layoffs of case managers left the area offices with only a single special education director to deal with any problems that may arise in their area. The District must examine the most effective way to troubleshoot problems at the local level.
Finally, the District must thoroughly train school principals in the requirements and delivery of special education services. Some building principals appear to have little or no knowledge of how the special education system should work or how to meet the needs of children with disabilities. Yet under the District's system of site-based management, they have primary responsibility for supervision of special education services within their buildings. Improved training procedures and requirements for school principals are critical.
There are certainly many District teachers and principals who try hard to appropriately meet the needs of their students with disabilities, but the District's ineffective and inefficient system is working against those educators and failing to meet the educational needs of these students.
A number of organizations in Philadelphia that advocate for the rights of children with disabilities, including the Education Law Center, intend to work with the School Reform Commission and city and District officials to address these issues.