SPARTA, NJ – The Special Education audit was presented at the August board of education meeting last week. As people returned from the turf field ribbon cutting ceremony, Superintendent Michael Rossi, Special Education Director Danielle Hamblin and Special Education Supervisor Adrianne Castorina presented the findings of the audit initiated in December 2018 and concluded February 2019.
In his introduction, Rossi said, “State targets are not being met across the board.” He said the audit would be used as a guide for the district to know where to focus efforts for improvement.
“Something like this opens you up and makes you vulnerable,” Rossi said. “There is always room to grow and improve.”
The audit had been done by Stetson and Associates, Inc. out of Houston, Texas, a firm Rossi said he had worked with in previous districts. Rossi explained the methods used to create the audit. They used:
- one-on-one and small group interviews with district administrators and board members.
- classroom observations and
- a focus group meeting of 75 people including principals, parents, general education and special education teacher, teacher assistants, related services personnel, Child Study Team members and supervisors, to “get perspective from all stakeholders.”
Rossi said 317 faculty and 71 parents completes surveys with 42 statements with responses represented on spectrum of agreement or disagreement. The surveys were presented in a series of grafts. As of 2017-2018, there were 555 students in Sparta schools who receive services, representing 17.4% up 2.2% since 2015.
Rossi said the increases “are due to our increased level of sophistication in identifying needs and identifying resources as well as heightened parental awareness and changes to code and statute.” He said this was consistent with data from around the state.
Hamblin said the largest categories of identified students in Sparta are “other health impaired” such as "attention deficit and physical impairment and specific learning disabilities." She said these mirrored statewide data. Rossi said comparing data from year to year is “difficult because the state does not track across grades.”
In 2017-2018, according to the presentation, Sparta spent $5,387,543 for special education, 8.4% of the budget.
Rossi said, “On the one hand you could say it’s expensive, on the other hand it’s critically necessary.”
New Jersey Department of Education data was used to make a comparison with Madison, Millburn, Chathams, Randolph and Roxbury school districts.
Rossi said the results of the surveys were presented in themes. They were Inclusion, Student Performance, Parental Perception and developing the Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered System of Supports or RIT and MTSS.
Castorina said the Sparta administrators had been told by the consultants to pay particular attention to any area of the survey that showed a result of more than 20%. The presentation included a sample of questions and the continuum of responses.
The presenters said a major finding was that they need to “structure faculty schedules to allow for more collaboration” with 54% of faculty reporting general education and special education faculty did not collaborate with each other on a regular basis. The parents survey reflected a similar understanding with approximately 26% reporting they do not think the general education and special education teachers work together.
A little more than 20% of parent respondents felt they were not treated as partners in their children’s education.
A little more than 20% of both staff and parents reported they believed faculty members felt a strong sense of responsibility for all students.
When asked if they do not think the education of general education students suffer when special education students are taught in the same classroom, about 30% of faculty said they disagreed, a number that Rossi said “contradicts massive amounts of research.”
Approximately 35% of teachers said they felt the teacher aides were not trained well enough.
Approximately 26% of parents said they felt their teachers did not have the skills and experience to provide a quality education for their child.
Hamblin said she was surprised to learn that more than 30% of parents felt they were not supported by the building principal.
Hamblin said the information in the faculty surveys could be disaggregated so they can determine who needs specific training. She said they would continue to work on collaboration because they “all need to work under one silo.”
McQueeny presented a summary of the recommendation uncovered in the audit as well as the steps the district will take to remedy them.
In addition to looking at scheduling more collaboration time for the faculty, they will “showcase inclusion practices as a point of pride across the district.”
McQueeney also said they will create a curriculum templet that will include accommodations and modifications. This curriculum issue was exposed in the most recent QSAC review as well.
With respect to achievement gaps for students with disabilities, the McQueeney said the “large gaps are not new to Sparta or the state.” He said they would be using LinkIt as a data repository to “help them understand proficiency on a macro level.”
This will also help the district to deploy resources most effectively, according to Castorina. “If a student needs a one-to-one aid at the beginning of the year, the data may show that that student maybe able to be weaned away for greater independence as the year goes on.”
Rossi said they would “institute a formalized analysis of teacher aids throughout the district. Last year there were 90, this year there are 81, according to Rossi.
Regarding management of fiscal resources Rossi said they would continue to try to bring students back into the district, having reduced the number of out of district placements from 49 to 26 between 2014 and 2019. In 2019, Rossi said an additional four students would be returning “as a cost savings of $260,750.”
He also said they would try to get Individual Education Plans or IEPs done in the summer as a more efficient use of resources.
McQueeney said the teacher aides would be receiving more professional development and the district would “continue to celebrate T.A.s.”
The administrators said they also need to more thoroughly explain the district’s efforts in the RTI and MTSS. Hamlin said they will be looking at ways to provide services to more students such as offering study skills support.
“We believe this audit will prove to be very fruitful,” Rossi said. “It already has in so many ways.”