The results of a year-long audit of the town’s special education offerings were revealed in mid-April to the Orange Board of Education. The results indicate that overall Orange schools are doing an above average job in meeting the special needs of students, though there is some room for improvement.
Last April, the district hired WestEd, an educational research group, to perform an audit. Consultant George Dowaliby found the results to be favorable, and offered the town a few suggestions to continue meeting the special needs of some of Orange’s students.
Dowaliby looked at effectiveness and efficiency of the special education program, looking at the continuum of services for students with disabilities, professional development, student outcomes and overall strengths and challenges. The evaluation consisted of interviews of administrators, focus groups made up of 27 teachers between Orange’s four schools, an educator survey (89 of 179 were returned), file review, data analysis and document review. “We look for red flags. We look to see if you are over-identifying or grossly under-identifying students,” he explained. Also, we pay attention to how much of an instructional day a youngster with a disability – how much of their education is in a general ed setting with non-disabled peers and how much is separate,” he explains.
Among Dowaliby’s key points is that parental involvement is strong and there is good communication between staff and parents. “It is apparent, not only from the focus groups and interviews, but from my observations as well, that staff is committed and caring, student-centered and making sure that each student with an IEP is getting the services that he or she is supposed to get,” he says. “I sensed and saw, pretty loud and strong, that there is a commitment to providing those required services.”
The study concluded that in terms of structure and staffing, Orange has an “adequate organizational structure with the ratio of special ed staff to students lower than both state and comparable districts,” according to Dowaliby. The study found that Orange has a lower prevalence of students identified to receive special education services than the state average, though in some cases, there is a significantly higher concentration rate of specific disabilities.
Based on the sampling used for the study, Orange has double the state rate of special education students identified with speech and language impairments. “The state rate is 25% of IEP kids are identified with speech and language impairments. Based on the sample, half of Orange’s IEP students are identified with needing help with speech and language,” Dowaliby says. “This doesn’t mean that their individual needs are not being met, it is just a disproportionate number.”
The audit showed that Orange IEP students spend less time with their non-disabled peers than those in comparable districts and compared to state average. “We pay attention to it because there is a lot of evidence that the more a disabled student is educated with his or her non-disabled peers, that often leads to better achievement. It’s easy for a group of folks, well-meaning around an IEP team, to make a decision based on what they know and are comfortable with. We want to make sure that people are really examining how students can receive the support and services they need, staying in the general ed setting, and only removing him when we’ve exhausted all of the support he’d be getting in the general ed setting,” Dowaliby explains. “I don’t know if that’s wrong or bad, but it is a flag for me to say to pay attention to this and make sure IEP teams are making good decisions.”
Based on the sampling and research, the district seemed to be doing a good job with communicating and sharing information around the IEP, but Dowaliby notes that there seems to be some struggle with parent education and training. “I know you’re offering sessions and are not getting the turnout, but a lot of people felt that was an area where we should continue to try to do better. I’d suggest offering a webinar as a resource. Getting people out for a meeting is tough,” he says.
Overall, the outcomes of Orange students with disabilities are above state average for students with disabilities. There are gaps, larger in reading than in math, in grade three, according to the report. “In grade six, your students with disabilities are doing as well as the whole student population – it is very unusual to see that. Kudos to that result!” Dowaliby says, reminding that it is expected to see gaps between general student population and sub-groups. “Those gaps may not go away, but we need to continue to have high expectations,” he says.
Other feedback included, “While IEPs are compliant, they could be improved in quality and consistency. There were issues around some of the language in them, something I would call boilerplate. They could be more meaningful. I did get a sense that some felt we coddle and hand-hold a little too much, and we need to make sure we keep those high expectations for all students including those students with disabilities.”
By Melissa Nicefaro – Orange Town News Correspondent