With a new face leading special education and a growing level of public attention, the ground is ripe for big changes to take place in the education of children with disabilities at Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Linda DePriest, new executive director of special education for MNPS, has publicly stated her willingness to make changes. Her work to date has earned praise from members of the local advocacy community, including the leaders of the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Special Education.
The good feelings may be the product of a honeymoon period, as DePriest has only been in the job since mid-summer. DePriest has said that she is working to build relationships with special education stakeholders, and early indications so far are that her efforts are working.
Another development that could pave the way for changes at MNPS is the continued involvement of the Mayor’s Advisory Council, which last week submitted an 80-page report to Mayor Karl Dean asking that the district be “converted” to a model based on inclusive practices.
DePriest has said the district is continuing its work toward more meaningful inclusive practices district-wide, and is working on a three- to five-year plan modeled after changes in Williamson County Public Schools. DePriest said she is a strong proponent of inclusive practices but believes that full inclusion does not meet the needs of all students, and can result in a "one size fits all" program that is not individualized.
While there is talk of both a plan and the possible hiring of a consultant to add structure to these proposals, there is still no guarantee that changes will occur. After all, as the Mayor’s Advisory Council noted in its report, a similar task force made parallel recommendations to the district 10 years ago, with few district-wide changes resulting.
The difference this time around could come about through a combination of district leadership, Tennessee Department of Education involvement, and the high degree of public awareness on the part of Nashvillians and entities including the Mayor’s Office.
Special education demands attention
For a number of years, special education issues have hovered near the forefront of education concerns, not only in Nashville but also in school districts across the state. Given MNPS’s status under federal No Child Left Behind legislation, the safety and education of students with disabilities has taken on a new dimension.
MNPS, as a district, is currently in “Restructuring I” status under NCLB, due to repeatedly missing certain student performance benchmarks. NCLB measures, among many other things, the performance of certain student subgroups — for example, English language learners, economically disadvantaged students, and African-Americans.
The subgroup of students with disabilities has gained more attention than ever before, as those students have further to go to meet proficiency levels than other subgroups in many academic areas measured by NCLB. The needs of each of Metro’s struggling student subgroups will need to be addressed soon, if the district is to move out of restructuring.
An audit of the district funded by the state Department of Education highlighted a number of problems in the education of students with disabilities. The report emphasizes a need for realignment of the district’s professional development efforts, including education for teachers in ways to improve integration of students with disabilities with the general population. The report also notes that high percentages of suspensions of students from troubled subgroups affect classroom instruction.
In a presentation of the audit to Board of Education members, Department of Education’s accountability chief Connie Smith emphasized a finding that read, “Students with special needs may lack consistent access to grade-level instruction.”
Recommendations submitted last week by the Mayor’s Advisory Council highlighted the benefits of inclusionary practices — practices designed to keep students with disabilities in general education settings as much as would be beneficial.
The report found that 31 percent of all district students with disabilities spend less than half their days in general education settings. That statistic does not come with a break-down of where that time is spent, and Advisory Council co-chair Wendy Tucker said when presenting the findings that it is possible that much of that time includes lunch, art, physical education, and similar settings.
Significant numbers of Metro students spend no time whatsoever with their non-disabled peers, including 31 percent of all students with autism and 10 percent of all students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The report also highlights the need for professional development that would help all Metro employees work better with students with disabilities. Currently, Tucker said, special education students are sometimes placed in classrooms in which a general education teacher is inadequately trained to work with disabled students — a problem Tucker called the “dump-and-hope phenomenon.”
“Most of our recommendations come back to [inclusion],” Tucker said. “This is about what the law says we need to do for kids.”
DePriest a ‘beacon,’ despite start-of-year glitches
The start of this school year wasn’t without bumps, for special education students. One issue the district is currently working to correct is a shortage of educational assistants, which officials attribute to federal laws requiring that EA’s at some schools hold a certain professional designation.
June Keel, assistant superintendent of human resources for Metro Nashville Public Schools, told The City Paper after a school board meeting Tuesday that the district has about 75 unfilled EA positions. District-wide, MNPS employs almost 700 EAs, 604 of which are devoted to special education classrooms and students.
Another trouble, during the first week of school, was a problem with a computer system that allows teachers to access the Individual Education Plans (IEPs) of students with special needs. The plans delineate the specific nature of student needs, as well as the services that have been determined necessary for those students.
Teachers could not access this system for the first few days of school. DePriest said that IEP plans could still be accessed through student files, but according to Erin Richardson, director of the Legal Advocacy Project
for the Arc of Davidson County, some teachers did not have access to those files, either, particularly in cases in which students had transferred schools.
Richardson said the problem was a significant one — teachers must be able to access IEP plans to properly serve their students.
But Richardson credits DePriest with quickly solving the problem. She added that first-of-school-year troubles do not dampen her “cautious optimism” that DePriest would prove to be an extremely positive addition to MNPS.
“I think we have to give credit where credit is due…She is definitely the beacon of light, right at this very moment in time, for special education,” Richardson said. “We still have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do to improve the educational experience of kids with disabilities. But we have much more of a reason, now, to be cautiously optimistic than we did before.”