Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Reorganizing focused programs brings stability, a curriculum continuum

I was a guest speaker at the May 18 meeting of Special Education PTA of Portland, SEPTAP.  Like I said on this blog following my first visit to SEPTAP last December, it was a privilege for me to be invited to speak at the forum provided by this group.  Roughly 50 parents turned out for this meeting.  Several of my Integrated Student Support team program members also attended. 

We talked about the reorganization and renaming of self contained programs. The new terminology is “Focus continuum programs/teams.”  The change is a result of a multi-year program review.  The ISS program review began as an audit of our budget and grew into a complete look at how the entire program serves students.  The review included all stakeholders—parents, students, educators, community partners, and administrators. The process also involved gathering an extensive amount of data, anecdotal information and ideas on how to improve the program.   The goal is to improve service to students. Read a blog post about the program review by clicking here and get a nuts and bolts perspective of it by visiting this website.

The changes we talked about at the meeting spurred many questions.  We spent approximately an hour taking questions from audience members, who posed many thoughtful questions.  I’ll start by relaying the main points of what I attempted to convey at the meeting.  Questions from parents, along with our responses, will follow.

Focused programs replace “self-contained” classrooms

Self-contained programs (now called Focused Programs) serve approximately six percent, or 496, of students within the ISS program (formerly known as “special education”).  These programs have been located randomly throughout the district, housed in whichever building had capacity when a need for a new program arose.  This has resulted in a district-wide situation where a continuum of curriculum is not present within each school. It means that any given school may not be able to serve its students throughout his or her education.  For instance, it means a school that serves general education students from kindergarten through fifth grade may not be able to serve students in a focused program throughout those grade levels. The school may have only have focused programs for K through 3rd grade. For fourth and fifth, students may have to switch to another school.  I told the story through the eyes of a young student in a previous blog post.

The fact that many students in the focused programs have had to switch schools three, four and even five times in their first six years of school is counter-productive.  To remedy this, Portland Public Schools next fall will implement a plan to reorganize K-8 focused programs. This reorganization is happening after an extensive, inclusive and careful review of the ISS program.  Last month, we sent a letter explaining this to parents of students who will be in this type of program next school year.

Reorganizing our focused programs brings much-needed stability for students and families. Changes in school locations are reduced as students move through grade levels.  The focus of programs is more carefully designed to ensure a full range of services that includes appropriate curriculum.  Program descriptions, entry and exit guidelines, and locations are more transparent to our families and staff who need information to make good decisions.

A district-wide inventory of curriculum used in K-8 focused programs is underway.  The inventory will identify gaps between available curriculum and student needs.  The next step will be to purchase curriculum in areas where we find gaps.

Another important aspect of this reorganization is that students will be aligned with their comprehensive high school area.

Renaming focused programs brings appropriate, descriptive label
Renaming the focused program with a more accurate label will do a better job of conveying how these programs function.  Going forward, what we used to call self-contained will be known as Focused Program or Focused Team.      

This label is appropriate because the programs are focused in a number of ways.  For instance, the teams of people who support these programs are being structured to deliver expertise aligned with the specific needs of students assigned to their rooms.  This has not been possible previously because under the self contained model, students have been assigned to a classroom regardless of their individual needs.  Students of all abilities and functioning at all levels could be found in one classroom.  It meant that students who are fragile and or have a mental health condition were mixed with those who are externalizing behaviors.  Under the new model, the focus programs also bring much needed focus for students.  The focus team at each school also is charged with supporting general education teachers in a way that will enable them to be more attuned to the needs of their special education students. This will be done through training by the program team, TOSA support, and extensive on-going training in buildings where there is a full time special education coordinator.  Schools that do not have a special education coordinator will receive training from the central ISS office program administrator, TOSA and other professional experts. 

We know these changes mean another painful move for students.  Going forward, however, the reorganization—with district-wide support that starts with our superintendent—will be an improvement for students and those who will follow.  It is for the long-term, greater good of all of our kids.

Click here for a listing of the program descriptions.

Contact us with your questions.  One of the best ways to reach us with questions about the focused program is by calling a hotline set up expressly for this purpose: 503-916-3931.

Question and Answer Session
Q. What was the decision-making process in regard to how students are being assigned to a focus program for the upcoming school year?

A. We organized our focus programs by high schools as much as possible and within clusters.  Several clusters are combined, based on the number of students who need these programs in certain geographical areas. In a few instances, the closest school is not very close to their home.

Q. How will the Learning Centers change? The current staffing model is very painful for the buildings.

A. Some learning centers will experience FTE cuts based on lower student population projections. In July, we’ll know specifics to look at the student numbers again and reallocate staff.  We’ve made a declaration to principals that the learning center and the model used to staff it will be getting attention in an effort to improve it.  This is one of the next areas of focus for ISS.

Q. The number of hours that para educators can work keeps getting cut. How can they do a good job when their day keeps getting shorter?

A. The reality is that in the face of declining budgets, we have to make cuts.  Our first priority is to keep cuts away from services to students.  So we look everywhere else first.  We’ve cut administrators, TOSA’s, positions at the district-level, as well as para hours. The para time has been added back. We’ve also added para educator positions in programs.  Everybody is trying to do the right thing.  It’s hard times.

Q.  Is the ISS department becoming less marginalized with these changes?

A. The ISS department has worked collaboratively on the focus continuum project with the district-wide committee on staffing and space.  We work and collaborate with HR on all union and staffing procedures, policies and issues.  This year we had a special education administrator and a TOSA work in the curriculum and instruction department overseeing the purchase and professional development of special education supplemental curriculum.  We continue to work on strategies to ensure that all students are embraced as their school building community. This means as they enter a focus continuum program and transition to a full-day in general education they can remain at the school through the end of the natural grade level transition. 

Q.  I was part of the stakeholder process for the program review you’ve mentioned tonight.  One of the issues that came up during that process is a desire to keep kids in the self-contained classroom at one school during their elementary career.  Another issue that is very important to stakeholders is to get kids to their neighborhood school.  But the problem is that when a building needs more space students in the self contained classroom are seen as the most expendable because they are not from the surrounding neighborhood.  So kids should be able to stay in their neighborhood schools with a one-on-one para and not go to self-contained classrooms in other parts of the district.

A.  The part that is hard is “Do we have the expertise within general education? Do we have it at the neighborhood schools?”  Currently, no.  We need to do training with our general education teachers. The answer is not a one-on-one para educator following a student from class to class or sitting in a general education classroom with a student all day.  Then para becomes the child’s educator.  But not many para’s have that capability.  We have to build focused expertise within the buildings.  There is no black and white answer to your question.  It is what we are working toward with focus programs.

Q.  How can you assure us that this change with the focused program won’t happen again? Our kids have to change classes next year and who’s to say in another year it won’t be put back the way it was?

A.  This reorganization was a priority recommendation from our special education program review. This reorganization of the focused programs is a significant undertaking.   This reorganization is a thoughtful plan.  There is significant commitment from all stakeholders from all levels of leadership.  This change has district-wide support, including budget support from Superintendent Smith. 

Q.  Why can’t some kids be grandfathered in so that they don’t have to change schools because of this?

A.  The only way to reorganize the focused programs was to have all the students move to their home cluster for 2010-1011.  This balanced the classroom numbers and provides capacity for students who live in a cluster area to be served there. There is a domino effect. 

Q.  This is segregation.  Instead of Integrated Student Support, the program should be called Segregated Student Support.  Students should be able to go to their neighborhood school and be in a class with everyone else.  How can they have separate programs with a separate curriculum?

A.  Integrated Student Support is a department that encompasses the district’s PreK-12 counseling department, health services, special education, mental health services, 504 and district-wide discipline.
Students in the focus programs are not segregated.  We staff at a level so students have access to general education as determined by the IEP team.  The curriculum used in the classrooms is also determined by the IEP team.  It has been selected as appropriate to meet the goals and objectives on the IEP.
Students that need a level of support beyond what can be provided in the general education classroom attend focus programs and have access to the general education setting through this program. The high level of staff expertise in the focus program provides support to the student and to the general education teacher so that the inclusion experience is successful. 

Q.  Are students going to have to change buildings as they emerge to a general education program?

A.  One of the benefits of this change is that a student does not have to change schools when he or she goes to general education. 

Q.  What kind of preparation is happening within the building and for the general education teachers before students arrive at the focus program?

A. An all-day in-service is scheduled for general education at 11 schools that will have the most students in focus programs.  The in-service is scheduled June 18.  In addition, special education coordinators assigned to those 11 schools are charged with providing on-going support.

Q. What about the schools that are not part of that group of 11 schools?  What is being done at those schools?

A.  They will be supported by the special education program administrators and TOSA’s.

Q.  Will there be an opportunity for parents to meet teachers and the other people who will work in the programs?

A.  Welcome tours are being coordinated.   Watch this blog for details.

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