SARANAC LAKE - An outside consultant has issued a blistering report on the state of the Saranac Lake Central School District's special education program.
Diane Albano of Delmar-based LEAD Consulting and Coaching, in a 17-page report, described the program as fragmented, lacking an overall vision and in some cases out of compliance with state regulations.
District Superintendent Diane Fox, who's in her first year and suggested the review, described the deficiencies cited in the study as mostly procedural. She said school officials have already addressed many of the issues and will continue to do so throughout the rest of the school year.
Diane Fox, superintendent, Saranac Lake Central School District
(Enterprise file photo — Chris Knight)
"I'll admit it's not a pretty picture," Fox said. "But it's fair, and it's a starting point. Although (the report) is lengthy and has a lot of suggestions, what's in it is doable in a reasonable time frame."
Fox said the study was prompted by a reshuffling of the district's administrators in July. Chad McCarthy, who had been in charge of the special education program as director of pupil personnel services, was named principal of Petrova Elementary School. Former high school assistant principal and dean of students Paul Leahy took McCarthy's job, then retired on Jan. 1. Special education teacher Nick Pepe was recently appointed the district's interim director of pupil personnel services.
"It seemed, as we were having someone new come into this position, that it was a great time to have somebody outside come in and take a look at what we were doing," Fox said.
School board President Debra Lennon said the special education review is also part of an ongoing effort to find ways to make the district more efficient "in a time of budget constraints." The district's special education program costs $2.9 million this year, excluding transportation costs.
The study cost $9,000 and was paid for using federal grant money. It was conducted this fall. Albano spent about two weeks reviewing the district's special education policies, reports and data, interviewing administrators, faculty, staff and parents, and visiting special education classrooms.
The district has 164 students in its special education program this year. All but roughly 2 percent of those students receive services in the district, below the state average of 6 percent. The report says the average cost of the district per special education student is $26,156, below the state average of $29,741 and below the average cost in similar schools, $28,585.
The summary section of the report says the district has a very dedicated special education staff, but they're seeking direction and leadership.
"The special education program does not have a clearly defined vision for the special education programs upon which processes and procedures can support the infrastructure," Albano wrote. "The special education continuum is fragmented and currently operates as silos in the buildings. Therefore, faculty does not have a common understanding of special education policies, procedures and service delivery criteria."
Among its specific findings, the report says the district has no written procedures or guidelines for its Committee on Special Education process. Special education department meetings are not held, and there was no evidence of a multi-year plan or annual reports to the school board, the report says.
The study says the district is out of compliance with state regulations regarding student referrals. Some referrals at the end of the school year still hadn't been processed, and a number of student evaluations were not completed within the state-required 60-day timeline, the report says.
Albano found "inconsistent access" to a continuum of special education programs and services from the elementary schools, middle school and high school. Staff couldn't describe the current special education curriculum across the district, Albano wrote. She also said the district's Response to Intervention system, a series of additional supports put in place for at-risk students, is not being implemented effectively district-wide. Special education staff assignments and caseloads are not aligned in buildings based on students' needs, the study says.
The report includes a long list of recommendations. It calls for the district to design a multi-year plan for the special education program and convene a committee of stakeholders to "develop a vision and a set of principles that will provide a clear focus for the Department of Special Education." Albano suggested school officials provide more professional development for staff, visit special education programs in other districts and develop clear procedures for special education based on state regulations. She said special education staff should be realigned based on the needs of each building's students.
"It's a heavy report," Fox said. "It has a lot of recommendations for us. We really are using it as a guideline to go from. We started right away."
Pepe said the report identifies what he described as mainly procedural deficiencies "like policies and how to do certain things."
"Many of these existed, but they weren't readily available," he said. "Diane (Albano), coming in on a short-term basis, she wouldn't know where they were, so a lot of the procedures just weren't clearly defined."
"We have a lot of the pieces, and they have been used in different buildings, at different levels, at different times," Fox said, "but they've never been consolidated into a K-12 plan with all the materials used consistently."
One section of the study criticizes the district for providing more adult supports than recommended.
"That's a negative, but I'd rather we be giving too many things," Pepe said. "If you have a child in the district, there wasn't any gaps in what we were doing. Maybe we were too heavy."
"Diane (Albano) spoke several times about how she felt we were really supporting our special ed kids," Fox added. "That is the saving grace of her review is that our kids are OK, but our procedures and what we have in place to make sure we're doing the very most for them have been lacking."
Seven years ago
Albano traced many of the problems to a 2007 decision by the district to bring most of its special education students back "in house" from programs run by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
"It appears that the speed of implementation, insufficient planning and preparation, training, monitoring and communicating to general and special education faculty was a barrier to implementation, resulting in the culture of the district being impacted to this day," the report reads.
That decision took place under the tenure of then-Superintendent Scott Amo. Lennon was on the board at the time.
"When that happened, to be honest, it might have been a little experimental," she said. "I think it was a lot about saving money. I remember $750,000 was the savings, and we could do the same thing BOCES was doing, but we could do it with our own people and we could save money.
"Maybe it was quick, and maybe we could have researched it a little more," Lennon added. "I'm not an expert in special education, so when a superintendent tells me that we have people to do it and we can do the same job or better, I believe that. I trust that. I don't think we're in disarray or upheaval. I really think, for the most part, we've been doing things to the best of our abilities."
Fox said no single person should be blamed for what happened.
"We took our students that had been housed in a different facility back with the very best of intention," she said. "We really want our students to be educated with their peers. It seemed like a good plan, but the follow through that was necessary just didn't happen."
Would the district go back to using BOCES for some special education programs? Both Fox and Lennon said that's doubtful.
"I haven't heard that, and I think we have the people we need to do a really good job," Lennon said. "It's just going to take some training and a little bit of changing in how we do things, and making it consistent from building to building."
Some of the first steps the district will take, Fox said, are to revamp its academic intervention process and services, offer "targeted" professional development for its staff, establish a continuum of special education services across the district and distribute staff "according to what our kids need rather than what we've always historically had in the district."
Fox said the state Education Department hasn't cited the district for the student referral issues and other deficiencies named in the study.
"That doesn't make it right just because we haven't been caught," she said. "We're working quick to fix that."
School officials say they also plan to look at the special eduction programs of nearby school districts. Fox said a long-term plan will be put together before the end of the school year and involve various stakeholders, including parents.
"It would have been nice to have just hidden this away and kept it on the QT, but I think it's important that the community knows we saw there was a concern and we're all on it," Fox said. "It will take all of us, including our families, to help us pull it back together so we're providing the best program that we can."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.