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State of the Schools: Special Education

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On Tuesday April 24th, Dr. Wardynski offered what he called the first annual State of the Schools address. It was an event sponsored and hosted by the Huntsville PTA to allow Dr. Wardynski the opportunity to speak to the public about the state of the schools in Huntsville City. If you’d like to read a good summary of the event, please take a look at Bonvillian’s excellent piece, “Huntsville Superintendent Touts Achievements in First ‘State of the Schools’ Address.” The district has now also posted the video on YouTube. I would suggest that you take an hour out of your day to take a look at it.

If you give it a read (or a watch), please make sure that you read all the way to the end. Bonvillian’s final paragraph contains an accurate assessment of Wardynski’s most touted “achievement” concerning balancing the budget. According to the superintendent, the district is in the black again due to a shifting of funding from the capital fund to the general fund.

Oh and now the district is planning to borrow more money for the capital fund.

It’s pretty easy to “balance” the budget by borrowing more money and shifting it around. It allows a lot of  flexibility to hire consultants to do your job, pay $80,000 just to recruit two principals, and pay an extra $10,000 to hire a TFAer through Teach For America rather than simply hiring them on our own.

I wish my budget had such “flexibility.”

While I certainly do appreciate the Huntsville PTA for sponsoring this event, it clearly took a lot of work to pull this together, I still have to wonder why Dr. Wardynski is so opposed to taking questions at events like this.

Oh wait, now I remember.

So, since there were no questions and since there was no formal response, I thought I would offer a series of responses here on the blog.

As always, I solicit your questions and responses. Questioning makes us all smarter.

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It’s been a while since I’ve written about special education in the system. In many ways, that’s been intentional. It’s good for a writer to be able to step back a bit and examine an issue dispassionately, and frankly, I have a difficult time doing that when it comes to special education.

Here’s why:

Watching WtP

It’s hard to be dispassionate when it comes to my boy’s education.

But in honor of Autism Awareness Month, and since Dr. Wardynski mentioned Special Education exactly twice on Tuesday night, I think it’s important to discuss the changes he was bragging about during his State of the Schools address. The first was to say that our first Teach For America “teacher” being hired under the new TFA contract is both a traditionally trained teacher (she/he has a teaching certificate and education degree) and this “teacher” is a Special Education teacher.

Yes, Dr. Wardynski was bragging that the first TFAer would be a Special Education teacher.

The second time that Dr. Wardynski mentioned Special Education in his State of the Schools address was to say that Special Education classrooms would be receiving technology updates over the summer.

Before I offer my own assessment of Special Education in the district, let me respond to these two points.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that the district provide disabled students a “Free and Appropriate Public Education.”

One key to that requirement is the word “appropriate.” A disabled child’s education must be appropriate for the child. In other words, if a child is blind, it is not appropriate to require the child to respond to visual stimuli. If a child is deaf, it is not appropriate to require the child to respond to sounds.

Children on the spectrum do not adjust well to change. As I’ve written before, even pulling back into the garage to get something you forgot can ruin a day.

Even if, and this is as they say, a BIG IF, this new TFAer is actually qualified, by placing a TFAer into a Special Education resource room, Dr. Wardynski is assuring that those children assigned to that room will face disruption.

You see, unlike a general education classroom, SPED students will typically stay with the same resource teacher for multiple years. This is part of the “appropriate” education. Many SPED students develop more slowly than their non-SPED peers. Having stability in their resource room allows one teacher to track that student’s progress over several years. 50% of TFAers are finished with teaching after two years. 80% are finished after three.

A new study shows that Teacher Turnover Affects All Students’ Achievement. One of the main points that the researchers found was that this affect on achievement was harder on at-risk students such as minorities, and low-achieveing students. While the study did not specifically look at Special Education, it should be clear that Special Education students are among the most at-risk of any demographic.

By hiring temporary teachers for SPED, Dr. Wardynski is ensuring instability in the SPED classrooms.

This combined with hiring instructional assistants from basically temporary agencies at rates and benefits that can’t compete with McDonalds

Let me say that again. By hiring temporary teachers for SPED, Dr. Wardynski is refusing to provide an “appropriate” education to our students. Our Superintendent of the Year is refusing to follow federal law.

Secondly, Dr. Wardynski bragged about updating the technology in SPED classrooms over the summer. As the SPED classrooms and resource rooms are often the absolute last classrooms to receive new technology, this is a welcomed change. (My son’s resource room has been requesting a SmartBoard for years. It is my understanding that his is among the last rooms in the building to receive a SmartBoard.

He’s convinced that technology can supplement personnel.

This is not the case with those SPED children on the Autism Spectrum. While they often have aptitude with technology, the appropriate education isn’t just to funnel children into modes of education that they are already successful in, an appropriate education will challenge students in ways that they are not already comfortable. Children on the spectrum have difficulty with social interaction. As such that is exactly what they need.

They need stable, long-term relationships with people who are trained to work with and connect with them.

Technology can assist students on the spectrum, but it cannot replace personnel.

Finally, as I pointed out, Dr. Wardynski is touting the seven million dollar surplus that he and Mr. Spinelli are predicting to have at the end of the fiscal year in September.

Seven million dollars is a lot of money, and it’s a figure that constantly turns up when discussing special education this year.

Seven million is the difference between the 2011 and 2012 budgets for Special Education. When I asked about it often enough, Mr. Spinelli, upon my request, sent me a Special Ed Expenses October – December 2011 report that miraculously had seven million restored in the 2012 budget for special education.

It seemed that my months of questioning had paid off. That was until I took a look at the actual expenditures for the first quarter and saw that we were spending only about $20 million rather than the budgeted $27 million. (By the way, these numbers held true for the second quarter as well.)

Once again, the totality of the budget surplus appears to be coming from one single group of students.

Special Education.

Cardinal Roger Mahony once said, “Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; the last, the least, the littlest.”

By the way, Cardinal Mahony was only paraphrasing, you know, Jesus, when he spoke of how we treat “the least of these” in Matthew chapter 25, verses 31-46.

But if the Cardinal is correct about judging a society and a nation, wouldn’t that also hold true for a school district?

Thus, if the state of our special education students in our schools is not good, then by default, the state of our schools as a whole would also have to be judged not good.

This despite Dr. Wardynski’s claims.

This despite the Huntsville Council of PTAs’ belief that Dr. Wardynski was the Superintendent of the Year.

Huntsville City Schools continues to balance its budget on the backs of our weakest members. How can that be anything but a failure?

 

 
Russell
"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.

6 Comments

  1. I believe you should contact a lawyer. Your civil rights were violated at the board meeting. I am ashamed to live in Huntsville when a school board hides and distracts because they are failing the taxpayers, parents and students. This is classic policy for bureaucrats who do not want to be accountable – marginalize and demean critics. Wardynski and the school board want to isolate those who will hold them accountable. We are moving our child from Huntsville Public Schools to private school next year.

    I watch most school board meetings and saw your impassioned plea for your son. The next speaker was the Huntsville PTA President who said, I am paraphrasing, everyone is happy, everything is great, parents and students have never rejoiced more. It was like she didn’t hear you.

    Don’t let them make you or your child invisible. I have lived all over this country, and I have never seen a Superintendent disregard parents as Wardynski does. Last fall he said he was going to use the media to “shape the message”. The message is anyone who disagrees with him is crazy.

  2. IDEA — The program fits the child, … not the other way around

    FAPE — Free Apprpriate Public Education…and as you wrote, the term is APPROPRIATE

    CIVIL RIGHTS — Retaliation/intimidation against students/parents is a
    violation

    One would think that after addressing education concerns through appropriate LEA channels to no avail, it would be taken to the next level(s)….state and federal education agencies.

    One might also ask for an AG (Attorney General) opinion in the matter of contracting out LEA responsibilities as it relates to special education students. Where does responsibility lie…..with the contractor or local education agency?

  3. CIVIL RIGHTS — Retaliation/intimidation against students/parents is a
    violation

    This school system has a documented history of retaliation/intimidation against students, parents, and teachers.

  4. Mr. Winn – I’m sorry that security removed you from the recent school board meeting. However, if you had not been I would not have learned about your blog and your concerns.

    I was appalled when I learned that the School Board had hired a career military officer to be the new superintendant. This can be a very poor fit for a civilian organization, as I know from my work on the Arsenal.

    When Mr. Wardynski was quoted in the Times as wanting to be at the arrival gate with a termination notice for the Davis Hills teacher who was AWOL I knew that my fears were justified.

    It’s beeen one bad incident after another: the Grissom coach; the Hampton Cove principal; the fence around Lee; turning over the staff at 2 schools, and a 3rd next year. I have no confidencce in Mr. Wardynski’s actions and I find his rationale to be unpersuasive.

    re the budget: I didn’t know about the smoke & mirrors. But I did know that he was largely taking credit for actions taken by others before he was hired.

    But I also know that Mr. Wardynski is a symptom. The real problem is the School Board. I certainly have a great deal of information to weigh in voting booth the next time my school board representative is on the ballot.

  5. Someone needs to do research on public data if improvement or backward slide of the students with exceptionalities for the last 3 years in HCS to put into a visual graph.

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