Time to talk

Special education audit starts conversations

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— James Dickson, 9, has a lot of eyes watching over him.

James, an energetic third-grader at Strawberry Park Elementary School, has autism. He struggles with changes to his routine and with verbal communication.

But when he's focused, there's a lot James can accomplish. On Thursday morning in art class, for example, he constructed an oval-shaped tower of toothpicks -- held together by marshmallows -- that skyrocketed in height after James figured out a triangular construction pattern.

"See? Bigger!" James exclaimed proudly after adding a fourth story to the tower.

Strategies to help James and the more than 270 other special education students in the Steamboat Springs School District have been closely examined during the past six weeks.

Although results from a March audit of special education in Steam--boat schools show a district-wide staff of "generally well-trained, knowledgeable, available and passionate" people, a report made by the four auditors states that how those people are directed can create problems and inconsistencies with service.

James' case is an example.

As art teacher Jude Black oversaw her class Thursday, paraprofessional Emily Schwall sat next to James for one-on-one help. Special education resource teacher Dana Colgan also was nearby. Colgan works closely with James and 10 other students in the school.

But the woman who directs James' education hired neither Schwall nor Colgan, and she is not their supervisor.

"I hold myself responsible for overseeing services for all special education kids, but I'm not the direct supervisor for most of the paraprofessionals and teachers," said Robin Tschider, special education director for the Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES, which works with the Steamboat Springs School District to provide special education in Steamboat.

Although the school district hires most "paras" and teachers, BOCES hires service providers --ncluding occupational therapists, school psychologists and speech pathologists.

The workplace collaboration often is unclear.

Local parent Kim Vogel described communication between the two groups as "extremely muddled." Steamboat Springs High School Principal Mike Knezevich said that although he thinks Steamboat offers the best special education in the state, communication is "a gray area."

"The audit showed it -- there's a lot of confusion from all three sides," Knezevich said Friday. "You have BOCES, you have the school district, and you have the parents and kids."

The findings

James' mother, Steamboat Springs Middle School French teacher Babette McAlpin Dickson, expressed concerns about special education services -- including a lack of summertime tutoring for James -- at a November meeting of the Steamboat Springs School Board. At meetings in December and January, nearly 10 other parents also spoke to the board, which approved the special education audit Jan. 23 at a cost of $3,192.

The audit took place March 30 and 31. The process, which was conducted by four special education experts, consisted of focus group discussions, school visits and surveys from more than 100 people, including teachers, parents and administrators.

The auditors were Cheryl Johnson and Melinda Graham, senior consultants in special needs with the Colorado Department of Education; Troy Lange, special education director for BOCES; and Vicki Hubbard, special education and health services director for the Sher--man Independent School District in Dallas.

Strengths listed in the auditors' report are parent participation and involvement, staff development and the district's "inclusion" policy, which places 82 percent of special education students in regular classroom settings. It's one of the highest inclusion rates in the state.

Concerns listed by the report examine the relationship between BOCES and the school district, which the report states suffers from a lack of clarity.

"The problem generally stems from which entity is responsible for specific services for students and is exacerbated by a lack of ownership over all services," the report.

Stemming from the ambiguous relationship is an identified "lack of follow-through" to commitments at the individual and the district-wide level, the report states.

Parents such as McAlpin Dickson and Vogel still are seeking answers.

"I don't see any concrete result that has been either offered or suggested," McAlpin Dickson said this week. "We are still concerned about the future."

Too small to go solo

Several participants in the surveys and audit forums suggested that the school district take over governance of its special education services to streamline management and programming.

Colorado state law, however, states that any school district with fewer than 4,000 students -- or fewer than 400 in special education -- must collaborate with BOCES.

Steamboat Springs has about 2,000 students in its four schools, and its special education population is about 270.

"The Steamboat district is not big enough to be its own administrative unit," said Jane Toothaker, executive director of the Northwest Colorado BOCES.

Moffat County schools are able to manage their own special education because of a "variance" they received from the state Department of Education 22 years ago, Toothaker said.

Tschider said that as an associate member, Moffat County receives some assistance from BOCES. Steamboat Springs receives a great deal of assistance.

In addition to staff and oversight, BOCES provides Steamboat special education staffers with training and development programs, often free of charge or at a reduced cost.

"If Steamboat were to pull out of BOCES, they would be pulling out of a lot more than special education," Tschider said. "They're getting a pretty good deal at sharing services."

Next steps

Teachers and administrators agree that the effect of the audit has yet to be felt.

"We're only halfway through with the audit, in my eyes," Colgan said. "The important thing is what is done with the information.

Superintendent Donna Howell said several upcoming steps will help school district and BOCES officials move forward with audit results.

At a June 5 meeting of the Steamboat Springs School Board, at least three of the four auditors will return to Steamboat and speak with board members.

Later in June, Howell said, conversations will begin about the roles and responsibilities of the groups invested in providing special education services in Steamboat. Howell said school and BOCES administrators and the school district's incoming director of curriculum and instruction, Kelly Stanford, will participate in the conversations.

Also in June, research will begin about model special education programs in other school districts, some of which could be outside of Colorado, Howell said.

Colgan said few school districts could finance such an audit and such strong programs.

"We live in an education paradise," she said Thursday from her office at Strawberry Park Elementary School. "Because we have the resources, we have the capability to make the best program possible. I think what the audit really showed is all the strengths we have."

-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203 or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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