As the associate superintendent for special education in an agency that provides services to 12 school districts in western Michigan, Kathy Fortino must strike a balance between helping systems in meeting their special education obligations and acting as a monitor when those same districts fall short.
So when the long-struggling Muskegon Heights district collapsed in 2012, those skills were put to the test.
The district, which saw enrollment drain away with the loss of manufacturing jobs in the area, had among the lowest-performing high schools in the state. It was crushed under more than $12 million in debt, saddled by crumbling school buildings, and faced substantiated complaints that it had systemically failed to meet the needs of all its students with disabilities.
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A for-profit charter company took over the district in 2012, a first for the country. And it became the job of Ms. Fortino, 62, and other administrators at the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District to help hold the system together and to help the charter company manage its new role, including its obligation to provide appropriate services for students with disabilities.
“The typical charter school has no residential boundaries. They have no responsibility except to who walks in their door,” said Ms. Fortino, an administrator at the ISD for 12 years. “So we have to have this operator that not only has to operate as a charter but as a district.”
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The ISD, the state-appointed emergency manager, and Mosaica Education, the Atlanta-based company that won the contract to manage Muskegon Heights, agreed that Mosaica’s responsibility would have to include the old district’s troubled special education program, which serves about 20 percent of the school system’s students.
The problems have not all been solved. Mosaica, which had originally signed a five-year contract, left last June, three years ahead of schedule. Its executives said that dealing with special education compliance issues, major renovations of old school buildings, and lower-than-expected enrollment kept the company from making money.
Muskegon Heights, where about 95 percent of the students are African-American and the entire district is directly certified for free school meals, is now a self-managed K-12 charter district calling itself the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, with 900 students. About a third of the eligible students in the district’s boundaries attend the charter; the others are at neighboring districts or other nearby charter schools.
“They’re not out of the woods yet, but they’ve made a lot of great progress,” Ms. Fortino said. “I think the community feels hopeful.”
Alena Zachery-Ross, a former employee of Mosaica, stayed on to be superintendent of the self-managed charter. She credits the ISD and Glenda Robinson-Scott, who was a principal in the old district and is now the charter academy’s director of special education, for untangling some of the district’s special education problems.
“The communication was key,” Ms. Zachery-Ross said. “You have to have ISD people like Kathy Fortino who are willing to listen to our concerns. You have to have people like Glenda who are willing to listen to the ISD,” she said.
Michigan has 57 intermediate districts, which provide services such as professional development for teachers, fiscal management for federal programs such as Medicaid and Head Start, and specialized programs, such as a school the Muskegon ISD runs on behalf of its member districts for students with severe disabilities.
Helping Muskegon Heights chart a path to financial solvency and improved academic performance expanded the generally accepted role of intermediate school districts, said David Sipka, who was superintendent of the ISD for three years before his retirement last June.
State law gives the superintendent of an intermediate district the power to serve as a traditional district chief when there is a vacancy. Usually, that power has been triggered to deal with short-term vacancies, but in Muskegon Heights, the district superintendent resigned at the end of 2011 with the intention of handing over the reins to the ISD.
“We had no playbook to go by; we had to write it as we went along,” Mr. Sipka said. “Kathy was integral in this because their special education program had really disintegrated. The [former] superintendent had told his staff, ‘Don’t bring any more students to special education testing because we can’t afford it’ ”—a violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
When Mosaica came in, Mr. Sipka said, its budgeted line item for special education services was $250,000. The district had spent $2.5 million the year before.
“That’s where Kathy came in and really worked with Mosaica, and kept on them, and held their feet to the fire so they would eventually put the team in place that could get the job done. She was a real trouper,” Mr. Sipka said.
That work included combing through filing cabinets of student information, trying to piece together which students were overdue for evaluations and what had been included in their individualized education programs, or IEPs, because the student electronic database had not been updated, Ms. Fortino said. “At the beginning, it was just a lot of that grunt work to see if we could find things that could put them in compliance versus what appeared on the electronic database.”
She and her team continued monthly meetings with charter-district staff members, to help them find resources such as school psychologists to perform student evaluations. The intermediate district also provided professional development for teachers on topics such as IEP writing.
The Council of Administrators of Special Education, an international organization that includes district-level special education administrators among its members, cited Ms. Fortino’s work with Muskegon Heights when naming her one of its outstanding administrators of 2014.
The organization also cited her work in developing a teacher-evaluation system that includes measurement of student growth for students with significant disabilities.
On behalf of its member districts, the ISD runs a school of about 200 students ages 3 to 26 with autism, cognitive disabilities, and physical disabilities. The evaluation system, now in its third year, allows teachers to use scores on the state’s alternate assessments, teacher-written classroom goals based on instructional standards, or individual goals for groups of students with similar disabilities for their personal evaluations; they must choose two of the three options. The teacher-evaluation goals are intentionally separated from IEP goals, and the teachers work in partnership with the school principal to ensure the goals are sufficiently rigorous.
Ms. Fortino’s immersion in the special education world started when she was a high school senior. She applied to be a teacher’s aide (“I was one of the kids who always knew she was going to be a teacher”) and was assigned a classroom of students with cognitive impairments. Ms. Fortino acknowledged that she was reluctant at first, but quickly grew to love both the students and the challenge.
“The thing about them that I really enjoyed was the fact that the kids cared so much about learning. The kids in that classroom, they ate up everything you gave them. And another part I liked was trying to figure out what would work for them.”
It feels like, in school, so much is done to you. There’s so much the feds want and that the state wants, and sometimes you get lost in that. This is a way to say, ‘What do we want to do?’ We’re going to focus on those compliance things, but they don’t have to own our work.
After college, Ms. Fortino started teaching at the Grand Haven and Fruitport school districts in Michigan. She eventually rose to become special education director at Grand Haven before joining the ISD.
Ms. Fortino’s work with Muskegon Heights, though intense, is only one of her current projects. For example, she and other special education administrators in the state’s intermediate school districts are in the early stages of re-evaluating how they monitor their local member districts for academic performance.
“There’s lots of stuff we can do that doesn’t require [state] rule changes,” she said. “We can work on practice changes, or things at the policy level that we can control.”
For example, students are currently evaluated for special education eligibility, but the evaluation process doesn’t tell a teacher much about what that student may need in terms of academic supports. The ISDs could lead the way in implementing that new policy focus, Ms. Fortino said.
“Accountability is huge with Kathy,” said Laurie VanderPloeg, the director of special education for the Kent ISD, also in western Michigan, and a former president of the special education administrators’ group.
“She’s very futuristic in looking at the results-driven accountability part of this,” she added, borrowing language the U.S. Department of Education is using in describing its own shift toward focusing on the academic performance of students, in addition to issues related to special education compliance.
This latest project is a needed counterbalance to an intense focus on special education monitoring, Ms. Fortino said.
“It feels like, in school, so much is done to you,” she said. “There’s so much the feds want and that the state wants, and sometimes you get lost in that. This is a way to say, ‘What do we want to do?’ We’re going to focus on those compliance things, but they don’t have to own our work.”
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A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2015 edition of Education Week