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Computers Found To Improve Special-Education Management

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Chicago--Two years ago, Louisiana's statewide special-education district decided to install a computerized system for tracking and managing information on some 2,400 handicapped students in state-operated residential facilities.

Today, it is a fully implemented system that permits officials from the Special School District No. 1 to monitor, through a computer, the 24 schools it administers, and to produce previously time-consuming reports in a matter of minutes.

As one of the few statewide systems with such a comprehensive capability, the computer network attracted considerable interest at the annual meeting of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

In an effort to reduce the amount of time spent on the administrative paperwork required by state and federal laws governing special-education programs, more school districts throughout the country are turning to computerized systems--and a presentation on the Louisiana system was one of the most popular sessions at the meeting.

"If you can use technology to improve your ability to manage programs, then there's more time to devote to instruction," explained Alfred J. Morin of Education Turnkey Systems, a Virginia-based educational research and development firm that specializes in computers.

Mr. Morin estimates that the number of microcomputers used for the management of special-education programs will increase from about 10,000 in 1982 to about 25,000 in 1985. At the same time, the number of computers used in special-education instruction will jump from 15,000 to 125,000, he said.

The Alaska Department of Education, for example, has installed a computerized information-reporting system to manage its records on special-education students that links the department to each of its school districts, according to Mr. Morin.

In the Louisiana special-education district, which was created by the state legislature in 1977, the computer system was conceived as a versatile administrative and instructional tool.

As a result of a federal court order in a suit over the timely placement of handicapped students, school districts in the state were required to have an "individual-student-tracking and data system" in place by last June 30, according to John J. Guilbeau, director of federal programs and data management for the special district.

However, Mr. Guilbeau said few districts in the state have gone beyond the minimum reporting requirements of the Louisiana Network of Special Education Records, the data collecting system managed by the state department of education that requires all school districts serving handicapped children--including those in state residential facilities--to report information on child counts, placements, and testing.

In addition to required state-network data, the district's computer system currently is capable of providing personal information on students and their location in the state, due-process procedures, administrative procedures, participants in pupil evaluations, instructional and related services, test results, and student transcripts.

The total cost of the system was about $98,600. According to Mr. Guilbeau, that expense was paid for through a provision for handicapped students under Title I, the federal compensatory-education program.

With the necessary information on a student stored in the computer databank, according to Mr. Guilbeau, an iep--individualized education program--can be generated in less than an hour, and reports that once took up to a month to prepare can be completed in a day. "It's a question of efficiency," he said.

Under the old manual system, Mr. Guilbeau said, administrators had to comb through drawers of papers, which resulted in "haphazard and inaccurate" reports. By the time the reports were ready, he said, they were no longer needed.

Mr. Guilbeau contends that the system is unusual because it involves the use of microcomputers at 17 of the 24 school sites to communicate with a mainframe computer. "Very few would attempt an undertaking such as we did," he said. The use of microcomputers linked to a mainframe "has been a milestone in high technology."

Mr. Guilbeau said that some have questioned the special district's plan because developing software for such a multi-layered system required extensive modification. But so far those problems have been overcome, and district officials plan to expand the system's capabilities.

The district plans to buy four new software modules to add to the student tracking system. They include personnel records, finance, student report cards, and property-accounting for items valued at $75 or more.

Next year, according to Mr. Guilbeau, the system will be expanded to accommodate an experimental program introducing microcomputers in selected special-education classrooms throughout the special district. At least one classroom that receives a microcomputer will be in a school for severely handicapped students, he said. "We're not looking to turn it into a computer lab," Mr. Guilbeau said. "We want computers to be used for instructional support. We don't know if it will work, so we're pioneering."

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