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Special education caseloads at high school exceed legal limits, pushing teachers to quit

By Kevin McCorry for NewsWorks on Feb 27, 2014 06:44 PM
Photo: Emma Lee/for NewsWorks

Emotional-support teacher Danyell Dahn has struggled this year as the number of students in her special education caseload has risen well above legal levels.

This is a story about how the system can crush your soul.

Emotional-support teacher Danyell Dahn came to the Philadelphia School District four years ago from Bloomington, Ind., eager to devote herself to the city's most vulnerable students.

She arrived at Center City's Ben Franklin High School with a mix of idealism and determination — certain that she could help kids overcome big problems by taking time to get to know them, talking honestly and building rapport.

"The thing that works best for my students is if they can make a connection with somebody that they can come to," Dahn said, "and say, 'I'm feeling really angry. I'm feeling really frustrated. What should I do?' They need to be able to trust somebody."

As an emotional-support special education teacher, Dahn works with kids who have lawfully binding Individualized Education Programs — plans written to ensure that educators take into account the students' emotional or behavioral impediments to learning.

Students can have emotional-support IEPs based on a variety of diagnoses — from schizophrenia to depression to a proclivity for unwarranted violent outbursts. Many consider being an emotional-support teacher among the most challenging positions in the profession.

Dahn says many of the students she serves live in neighborhoods plagued with violence and come to school "in survival mode ... acting as if they are coming out of a war zone."

Helping these kids engage with school curricula first takes real human connection, she says.

"I need to be able to take time and say, 'What happened?' They need to know that I care, that I'm interested, that somebody's listening," she said. "And after they feel that they're heard, then maybe they can hear what other people are saying, too."

During her first year on the job, Dahn felt she was a steady, reassuring presence in her students' lives. Her student caseload was under legal limits, and everything moved along relatively fine.

Then the budget ax fell.

And over the next few years, Dahn watched as caseloads ballooned and students received less and less individualized attention.

At the end of the 2012-13 school year, the Philadelphia School District shuttered 24 schools and shed about 5,000 staffers. As a result, Ben Franklin, a school that received displaced students, saw enrollment rise by more than 250 students.

"When we hear about the school closings and the deficit, I don't think people are realizing what that looks like and that we're making the problems worse," Dahn said. "Unfortunately for the students, there are a lot of needs that they have that we simply don't have time to tend to during the day."

At the beginning of this school year, there were five high-incidence special education teachers at Ben Franklin for 164 special ed students. Looking at state law, the teachers calculated that the school should have had at least three more teachers.

"Before the students even got there, you know we go in a couple of days early, and when I walked in, administration said, 'We know, we know we have so many emotional-support students. We are getting another teacher. The District knows. They're sending somebody over.'"

Dahn waited.

September went by. October went by.

Nothing changed.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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Comments (26)

Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on February 27, 2014 7:42 pm
Everything that Philadelphia does with regard to Special ED is illegal. They just do not care. For some odd reason inclusion applies to every county in Pa except ours or do they just ignore the law??? They get away with this because most Philadelphia parents do not care about or follow their children's education. WAKE UP PARENTS OF SPECIAL ED STUDENTS THERE IS A LOT OF MONEY TO MADE BY LAWYERS!!!!! YOU UNFORTUNATELY GET NOTHING WHICH IS PROBABLY WHY THERE ARE SO FEW SUITS.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 1, 2014 12:14 am
Poogie, You must not be a Special Education Teacher because if you were, you would know that the District has tons of lawsuits against it related to special education. The District probably pays out millions of dollars in compensatory education (comp ed) payments each year. To suggest that parents should try to use Special Education litigation as a means of making money is completely irresponsible. The purpose of litigation is to ensure that a child with an IEP is receiving FAPE, not for the parent or an attorney to make money. Litigation makes life harder for teachers because it is very stressful. Teachers must collect a bunch of documents and data. Usually, there are meetings with lawyers. I've dealt with this personally. It's not an issue that should be taken lightly. When a teacher has to expend energy working on a legal case, that means less time that he or she can devote to doing his/her best job providing quality instruction and doing the other requisite duties of a teacher. Educator of Great Students
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on March 1, 2014 11:08 am
A competent organization is kept in check by lawsuits. It might be stressful and teachers might actually have to work but the solution is get your act together and do what the law requires. Not complain about stress and more work. If the parents cared they would bring suits to make the district conform to the law. No suburban school district treats special Ed students like Philadelphia because the parents would sue till it stopped. Your proposal is to not sue and rely on the tender mercies of the SDP which has failed miserably so far. It is going to improve if the suits lessen? Now the administration of the SDP is probably so incompetent it can never conform to the law. But that does not mean they should not be sued into oblivion. You either conform to the rule of law or you die.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 1, 2014 3:29 pm
Poogie, You need to read my comments carefully. I said that "to suggest that parents should try to use Special Education litigation as a means of making money is completely irresponsible." You said "WAKE UP PARENTS OF SPECIAL ED STUDENTS THERE IS A LOT OF MONEY TO MADE BY LAWYERS!!!!!" I don't think it's responsible to encourage people to be taking advantage of the school system for personal financial gain. That's encouraging parents to act as vultures. We need to be working to make the District do right by kids, not telling parents to sue the District in order to enrich themselves. Of course there are legitimate lawsuits, both for individuals and classes of individuals. There was this class action suit, PV vs. the School District of Philadelphia, that parents of students filed regarding the transferring of students with autism. The plaintiffs and their lawyers were challenging what they considered to be an "Automatic Autism Transfer Policy." No such policy actually existed by that name in the School District, but in practice, the children with autism were being treated differently because they had to change schools more often than children without disabilities. The District should be providing the special education services for all of the grades at a particular school. So a K-6 school should have Autistic Support classes for students in K-6, not just K-2. See these sources for more about this lawsuit I reference: "Four parents of autistic children sue Philadelphia School District", Stopping the Autism Shuffle: Organizations like the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia need to work with parents and educators in order to demand that the Commonwealth and School District of Philadelphia provide sufficient funding and personnel for special education and honor the legal caseload limits.
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on March 1, 2014 6:55 pm
Parents have gotten together with Organizations and the SDP has crapped upon them. Philadelphia parents have to act like suburban parents and get a lawyer and suddenly the district will listen. We all know that the SDP is a complete organization nightmare and probably in incapable of providing the type of special education required by law. They get away with this because parents do not care and rarely even show for IEP meetings. As any teacher reading this knows the meetings are set up without the intention of them ever happening because of parental disinterest. I am not encouraging parents to be vultures I thought I was pretty clear that lawyers make the money in these cases. Congress set it so that lawyers get their legal fees paid. This provides parents with an unlimited supply of lawyers. It is the parents key to the courthouse. The poorest parent can have good representation because the SDP is paying the bill. And if they do not like paying the bill they can easily stop paying by adequately funding and managing special Ed. The case are all in Federal Court District Judges are not the corrupt hacks you find in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court so they can weed out the merit less cases. The SDP suffers from too little lawsuits not too many. The SDP should be sued into oblivion. They are going to fire all the Public school teachers anyway and leave special ED to the tender mercies of for profit charter operators. So Sue them to death! Lawsuits may stop this because the coming system will be a nightmare.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 1, 2014 11:47 pm
Poogie, With all due respect, to say that "they get away with this because parents do not care and rarely even show for IEP meetings." Most parents do show up for IEP meetings. To say that parents rarely show up for IEP meetings is absolutely false. I work in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city and I know from speaking with my fellow Special Education Teachers that most parents DO show up for IEP meetings. I think the bigger issue is that many parents do not fully understand the special education process. This is understandable because the process is very legalistic. Special Education Teachers are required to provide parents/guardians with a Procedural Safeguards notice each year. However, when a teacher knows that a parent cares and has high expectations of the teacher, then this keeps teachers in check. Teachers are so busy and the work load is very high that it's easy to let things slide, but thoughtful parents help teachers do the best for students. Education has to be a partnership. It's not about suing, but working with the teacher and the school to ensure that the child is receiving the best education possible and that the school is implementing the IEP.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 2, 2014 9:20 am
In my school about half of the parents show up for IEP meetings.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 8:13 pm
Thank you Ms. Dahn for being so very candid about your working conditions, implications for children and impact on your own well being. I admire your ability to see "the writing on the SDP wall" after only 4 years, and your refusal to compromise your integrity while SPD figures out yet more ways to short change all involved. It is no easy feat to "up sticks"and move to a new region. We were fortunate that you chose to invest in Philadelphia and it is a shame there wasn't more here for you. I am sure you have made a lasting impression on the staff and students you have worked with. Best wishes to you! STAY STRONG!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 9:12 pm
Danyell,keep up the good work and fight. Even though, SDP administrators, (namely at 440 as well as some school principals), seem to be blind to the fact and intentionally fail to notice the impact teachers and staff have on students academics and general well-being on a daily basis. In addition, most SDP administrators,(Hite and SRC included), disregard many teachers/staff that go that extra mile, for their students, with no support from the leaders in the SDP. However, the silver lining is-eventually many students keenly do.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 9:39 pm
Poogie, There are many Special Education lawsuits in Philly, however the lawsuit awards are for the student not the parent. If you looking to make money for yourself then find another avenue to sue, like a transportation company or fake a fall.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 9:11 pm
Are you cynical like this all the time? Wouldn't wanna be ya!
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on February 28, 2014 8:19 am
Do you know how to read?? You must be a SDP reading teacher. My point is there are way too few lawsuits because under the law the parents get nothing. Now the Lawyer get their fess paid by the district so they love the suits. In the suburbs the parents would have sued so much the system would be fixed or the district sued into oblivion.Since SDP parents get no money the often do not bother. How do you interpret that to mean I want money?
Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 1, 2014 3:06 pm
Teaching high school Emotional Support is a very difficult job, even with a reasonable caseload. I find Fernando Gallard's assertion that the District is having a problem finding qualified applicants for the Special Education Teacher vacancies for ES somewhat believable given the nature of teaching ES. The District contracts with Wordsworth to staff some of the ES teacher positions in schools. Regarding the caseload size, why was it allowed to stay so high for so long? Where was the Special Education Director? Where is Kim Caputo, director of the Office of Specialized Services. Why didn't HR post the openings? I know, I know, 440 is a ghost town and many of the people who work there are overworked. But a caseload of 44 is absolutely outrageous! How was that allowed to stand? If money wasn't the problem, what was the problem. Too many issues fall through the cracks. Why isn't the State taking the caseload legal limits more seriously? If Ms. Dahn has students from schools which closed, then she probably has some students who don't have their special education files either. My understanding is that all of the special education files from the closing schools are somewhere at 440 N Broad St. These files should follow the student to his/her new school, but have not. Unfortunately, not everything that the IEP team needs is on the EasyIEP system, e.g. behavior plans, which are very important for ES teachers. My question is, where was the Special Education Director for the Principal Learning Team that serves Franklin? Why wasn't anyone doing anything about a caseload of 44!
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on March 1, 2014 5:43 pm
EGS---You're lucky you're so nice !!!!!!!! The truth is there's been an avalanche of corruption, replete with enormous negligence towards the hardened ES kids. That's why charters won't take them so caseloads in the real Public Schools are "outrageous" as you correctly suggest. In this environment of unbridled fear, anything can happen, all of it bad. Even on this website, how many people not named Joe K. have slammed Obama for his obvious disregard for the very same people who put him into office?? The PEOPLE better wake up and band together before it's too late in the good ole US of A. All of this is connected as in George Orwell.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 9:07 pm
Kevin, did you or your staff check with the SDP that the class size noted was accurate? I'd like to believe that this data was verified when you spoke to Mr. Gallard and before the article was written.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 27, 2014 10:41 pm
Hello Anonymous, Thanks for your concern. The distinction here is caseload, not class size. And, yes, I have a copy of the state's report which details exactly how many students each special-education teacher at Franklin was in charge of at the time of the report. -Kevin
Submitted by inthetrenches (not verified) on February 28, 2014 3:58 am
Many of us - special ed and regular ed - are being "dumped on" by administration with extra responsibilities this year. I not only put in my 7:30 - 5:00 day at school but then go home and start the day again. Principals have the power to "push the tasks down the line" on teachers. They can threaten us if we don't do our "tasks." The union is silent. With Hite's new plan, I fear it will get worse. Principals are "all mighty" and "all powerful" under Hite/SRC. New teachers are able to leave - they are lucky. Those of us with 20 plus years don't have that option. Doesn't Hite/SRC realize this is unsustainable?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 3, 2014 1:52 am
Of course the union is silent.Why would this issue be any different for PFT leaders,who are quiet on many,many issues.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 3, 2014 1:59 am
work to contract
Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on February 28, 2014 5:11 am
Being an SEL, I have many stories where the SDP has dropped the ball regarding special education. It is disheartening to complete the job on your end while only having one period for release and then have the SDP fail on following through. If people only knew...
Submitted by meagain (not verified) on February 28, 2014 8:41 am
Exactly. If people only knew the sh!t that goes on in SDP. Teachers just keep on truckin because they want to help the kids. We need smaller class sizes and mental health and reading specialists in every building.
Submitted by Christa (not verified) on February 28, 2014 8:43 am
There was a lawyer who gave an interview in the fall about how he quit the district and opened his own practice. His practice specifically works with parents who are suing the SDP. He left the district because he saw what a gold mine being a private attorney who sues the district could be. We are breaking laws left and right. We do not have anyone advocating loudly enough for our special education population.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 28, 2014 11:01 am
In the last 2 years of my employment, I had caseloads of 38 and 42. I retired 3 years earlier than I had planned precisely for this reasons and those offered by Danielle. New teachers were given fewer caseloads but no training in how to do the IEP's. Veteran teachers had to find the time to help the new teachers in addition to having a larger caseload. In addition to having fewer teachers, caseload totals also rose due to sabbaticals and long term illnesses as substitutes do not do IEP's. Hastily written IEP's can lead to law suits further cutting into a teacher's time. Special Ed teachers get no extra prep time to write IEP's. A caseload of 40 can demand nearly all of your prep time if you want to do them properly. The School District would be wise to hire retirees on a part time basis to assist teachers with their IEP writing. This would allow teachers to use their prep time to plan their lessons and could reduce the number of law suits. The IEP pressure is huge for teachers and assigning excessive caseloads is irresponsible, damaging and unnecessary.
Submitted by inthetrenches (not verified) on March 1, 2014 2:00 pm
Thank you to the gutsy teachers who stood up for their students. Meanwhile, why is Hite "welcoming" TFA (see his tweet). While teachers are being trampled on by the SRC/Hite/Gleason/Corbett, Hite is playing into the hands of the fascist "school reformers" like TFA. Yes, he is a product of the Broad Foundation but has he no respect?
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on March 1, 2014 11:57 pm
No, none at all. He's a bought and paid for shill for the corporate elite (Business).
Submitted by gloriaendres (not verified) on March 1, 2014 4:37 pm
My compliments to all the teachers involved for working under such unfair conditions.

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