Special Education

Texas District Makes Gains With Spec. Ed.

By Christina A. Samuels — June 19, 2007 9 min read
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The North East Independent School District, serving part of the city of San Antonio, cherishes its image as a diverse system of high-achieving students bound for college. But two years ago, the 61,000-student district received a jolt when 10 of its 61 schools failed to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. At each, the performance of students with disabilities tipped the scale downward. Four were considered “academically unacceptable” under state standards, a rating that was successfully appealed but still a blow.

Superintendent Richard A. Middleton, who has led the district for 17 years, said the results were demoralizing: “When we have a school that for the large part is very successful, if a smaller cell of student scores creates a low ranking, there’s an air of disbelief and confusion.”

Christine Polensky, a 6th grade English teacher at Nimitz Middle School, works with Joseph Villareal, 13, who is severely visually impaired.

After an intensive, district-led reform effort, the picture in North East was very different just one school year later. Eleven schools were ranked as exemplary in 2005-06, up from just one school in 2004-05. All of the schools that had failed to make AYP the year before now met that standard. And 90 percent of the students with disabilities were assessed on grade-level standards.

The challenges faced here in Texas by the North East district are similar to those vexing many districts around the country. When Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1997, it pushed districts toward more accountability by requiring that students in special education be included in state testing systems. No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002, increased the federal pressure by requiring that the test scores of students with special needs be reported as a distinct subgroup. Sanctions awaited schools that don’t perform well.

In the North East district, “we didn’t hide from the data. We went right at it,” said Alicia H. Thomas, the associate superintendent for instruction. “We recognized that this is not a special education issue. This is an instructional issue.”

The work isn’t over, say district officials. High schools, with a higher concentration of students with special needs compared to elementary and middle schools, remain an area of concern. Another challenge is developing academically rich content for students with severe cognitive disabilities.

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Team Teaching Key to Turnaround

But the district expects to see similar success for students with disabilities in 2006-07, the second year of its improvement effort. Though test scores had not yet been released last week from the state, the district has done its own calculations and expects all schools to make AYP. Almost all of its special education students were assessed on grade level, and estimates are that the pass rate for that subgroup will not dip below 70 percent.

The 140-square-mile district is a vibrant study in contrasts. There are affluent “1604 schools”—so called because they are located in growing suburbs north of Loop 1604, a beltway that circles San Antonio—and older schools, which have poorer, predominantly Hispanic, and highly mobile populations. About 45 percent of the students are Hispanic; 41 percent are non-Hispanic white; and the remainder are black and Asian. More than a third of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Texas has routinely given more than half the district’s schools top ratings under the state’s school rating system,, based primarily on performance on state tests. Scores on the SAT given in 2005-06 outstripped state and national averages. Close to 90 percent of last year’s graduates indicated they were college-bound.

But for students with disabilities, the picture was not as rosy. By the district’s own reckoning, far too many of those students were taught a watered-down curriculum in “self-contained” settings, away from their peers in general education.

Texas officials had alerted the district about the high percentage of special education students who were placed in settings where they spent more than half their day away from the regular education classroom.

Mills Rodgers, a special education teacher, works with Matthew Ledezma, an 8th grader, in a mainstream English class at the school.

“I think it was just a very traditional view of special education that held on longer than it should have,” said Judith Higgins Moening, the district’s executive director of special education. “We used to think, ‘We’ll pull them out, and fix them.’ Lo and behold, we never did.”

In 2001-02, when the percentage of students in restrictive environments statewide was about 27 percent, the proportion in North East was 38 percent. The district made strides in reducing the percentage of students spending more than half the day in a special education setting. This school year, the proportion was 11 percent, significantly below the Texas average of 21 percent.

The next step for those students, the district decided, was tougher assessments, on grade level. Even though districts at that time had the option of testing students with disabilities at a lower grade level than what their chronological age might indicate, North East leaders recognized that “out of level” testing was inconsistent with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.

Districts in Texas once had a lot of leeway on the types of tests administered to students in special education, said Michael Lara, the district’s executive director for research and information technologies. Too often, those expectations were “the lowest of the low,” Mr. Lara said.

“We gave them high expectations, and we took a bit of a hit,” Mr. Lara said. “It was the right thing to do, but there were a lot of Tums that were bought that afternoon [the scores were received]. We thought, are we at the point that our expectations are so high that we messed ourselves up?”

Faced with the low test scores in 2004-05, the district embarked on a systemwide “archeological dig,” as described in a report administrators wrote about their improvement efforts. The examination uncovered “severely fragmented programs, poorly understood and complex accountability systems, and lowered standards for students with disabilities.”

In response, the district developed an improvement plan called “data coaching,” transforming research culled from local and national sources into an intensive, flexible plan for each school.

The plan required both a practical and a philosophical change for district professionals. Principals, in partnership with district-level data-coaching teams, dug deeper into student achievement data than they ever had before. All students, particularly those with disabilities, had to be taught the most rigorous classwork teachers believed they could master. Administrators were asked to internalize a belief that all students could learn—no excuses.

Charting Improvement

These test results show how special education students improved in schools that had failed to make adequate yearly progress for that subgroup.


Note: Test results shown are from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and the State Developed Alternate Assessment, which was administered for the last time in 2006-07.
SOURCE: North East Independent School District

Not every school leader was immediately on board. Linda Skrla, an associate professor at Texas A&M University, in College Station, and a graduate school classmate of Ms. Thomas’, gave a presentation to district administrators the summer after the 2005-06 test administration. Along with James J. Scheurich, Ms. Skrla wrote a book called Leadership for Equity and Excellence, contending that unconscious biases can lead administrators to have low expectations for students. The authors urge administrators to confront those biases and institute reforms.

“You can’t just hope and assume that people are going to recognize that equity and diversity are issues before them,” said Ms. Skrla, the assistant department head in the university’s department of educational administration.

As she mixed with North East administrators after her presentation, Ms. Skrla recalled, some were saying, “Amen, hallelujah, where have you been?” In other cases, though, the reception was frostier. “Some people were sitting with arms crossed,” she said. “They were polite, but barely.”

North East educators got their data-coaching idea from an article in the May 2005 issue of the education journal Phi Delta Kappan describing a process that educators could follow to improve instruction. The authors, who represent Harvard University’s graduate school of education and the Boston public schools, have since collaborated on a book called Data Wise: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Assessment Results to Improve Teaching and Learning.

The point, said co-author Kathryn Parker Boudett, was to give schools and districts a way to distill the mountains of data available to them on each student.

“A lack of data is not the problem,” said Ms. Boudett, an education lecturer at Harvard and the director of the Data Wise Project, which is designed to help schools turn student-assessment data into a tool to improve instruction. “But the data is not in a form they’d like to see it in. What they need is a way to convert it into an easy chart that brings to the fore what the issues are.”

In North East, administrators created four assignments for school leaders. On the first day of the 2005-06 school year, principals were asked to present a program to their teachers that reviewed the previous year’s results and outlined an improvement plan. District-level data-coaching teams, which each worked with eight to 10 schools, gave principals the help they needed with this first step.

Ivette Calzada, left, and Terry Woolum “redirect” Damon Torres, 12, a 7th grader at Nimitz who forgot his textbooks. The special education specialists told the boy to write himself a reminder to remember the books the next day, so that he could turn them in for the end of the year.

By October, campuses were asked to produce a spreadsheet listing each student at risk of failure, along with an intervention plan for each. “We literally would have a list, kid by kid, about what to do and what decisions to make,” said Mr. Lara, the district’s research administrator.

The third assignment came in January of 2006, when school leaders reviewed the work of all students who were performing poorly, based on the district-created benchmark tests. The campus-intervention plans introduced at the beginning of the year were revised as necessary. As district administrators describe it in the report they wrote, “the data-coaching message was one of both pressure as well as support. In other words, failure was not an option, but the campuses were not in the struggle alone.”

Campuses that continued to post poor results—known as SNAP schools, for “schools needing an acceleration program”—got even more targeted and intense assistance.

The fourth assignment came at the end of the school year, when principals reviewed their efforts and were asked to draw up campus-improvement plans for the 2006-07 school year. And, importantly, they celebrated their successes of the year before.

“We’re using the sophisticated strategies that all good districts should have,” Superintendent Middleton said.

The change was tough, confirmed Laura Holson, who leads Olmos Elmentary, a 640-student school where 87 percent of the students are Hispanic, 86 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and the annual mobility rate is around 46 percent.

“When something new comes down the pike, we fuss,” she said.

But the results have been undeniably positive, from Ms. Holson’s perspective. During a recent interview, she took a moment to calculate reading test scores just received from the state. She didn’t want to wait for the central office’s analysis—she had to know which of her “babies” had passed the test, and which ones might have to attend summer school.

“Yes, we knew our kids,” she said later. “But we did not know them to the depth and complexity that we do now.”

While acknowledging its success, the district also recognizes that it’s trying to hit a moving target. Both state and federal standards require districts to have more and more of their students in special education passing the state tests.

“We feel we’ve gone about this in a good way. We know that it’s not where you test [students with disabilities], it’s where you teach them,” said Ms. Thomas, the associate superintendent for instruction.

“I think we are uniquely prepared to meet the new requirements,” she added. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but we know what we need to do.”

Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Education Week as Texas District Makes Gains With Spec. Ed.


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