Scapegoating Special Needs Kids

Reading under the covers.

I had to calm down before writing this tonight. Spending time with my kids, helping them do their homework, reading with them under the covers really did make all the difference.

And that’s a good thing.

Cause watching the Huntsville City Schools’ Board of Education meeting tonight was difficult. Far more difficult than normal, and that’s really saying something.

New Policy for Requesting Public Information

There were several important details that need to be discussed from tonight’s meeting like the superintendent’s recommendation to revise how the district will address requests for information from the public. No longer can we simply ask a question of a central office employee and expect an answer. Now the public will be required to submit a request via an electronic form (that is still to be developed; they’ll be getting right on that) to the Compliance Office.

If, and only if, we are requesting an existing document, they will reproduce the document at a cost of $0.25 per page. If we are requesting information without requesting a specific document, that request will not be fulfilled.

So much for going directly to the source as Mrs. Ferrell recommend before she was elected (funny how things change after an election, isn’t it?). From this point forward, asking questions of district officials that requires anything other than the production of a single document will be ignored.

Opaquacity Is Transparency. So says the Party.

That’s worth its own post, and I’m sure one will be forthcoming when this policy is voted in unanimously in a probably a week’s time.

DOJ/HCS Proposed Consent Order Corrected After 24 Hours

Then there’s the recently completed Proposed Consent Order that has been developed in secret between the district and the Department of Justice over the past six months.

The best advice that I have about this is that you should absolutely go read it. Closely. You might be astonished to find that zone lines, even for schools that haven’t been a part of the re-zoning discussions, have been dramatically altered.

You might be further surprised to find that no one seemingly bothered to proofread the document produced by countless lawyers at a nearly incalculable cost to the taxpayers before releasing it to the public

The zone lines for Mt. Gap and Challenger have already been changed/corrected after parents noticed that they were being re-zoned from one school to the other.

Is it really that difficult to get it right the first time?

And if that’s wrong, what else might be?

Proofreading really isn’t that difficult when you’re getting paid $200 – $500 per hour, is it?

In short, read the document. Neither the DOJ nor Huntsville City Schools is actively looking out for your children in this matter. That’s up to you. But of course the courts aren’t going to give you six months to review it. In many ways, you really only have until next week.

Teachers Gagged Concerning Proposed Consent Order

Oh and don’t bother trying to ask you child’s teachers or principal about the Proposed Consent Order. They’ve been ordered to respond exactly one way: “Please go review the www.ProposedConsentOrder.com site.”

You see, like with the new policy to specific refuse to answer any questions from the public about the workings of the district, our district leadership believes that they have to tell teachers that they are under a gag order concerning the Consent Order.

Because clearly teachers cannot be trusted to know on their own not to simply make stuff up when asked a question they don’t know the answer to. They have to be gagged and threatened.

They have also been warned that they cannot express an opinion about the order even if it is clear that they are expressing a personal opinion. This means that our teachers and principals are not allowed to question something that is obviously incorrect, like the redrawing of zone lines up and down Mt. Gap Road.

Education in Huntsville under the Wardynski regime means educators never getting to ask a question.

Graduation Rates and Special Needs Kids

Nope all of those points have to take a backseat for a bit because of what should have been an innocuous report from Dr. Cathy McNeal concerning the calculation of graduation rates in the district.

You see, the district has an 87% graduation rate, but that rate can be “corrected” over time if necessary. And it is regularly necessary to correct the numbers. So let’s assume that the ALSDE is actually doing their jobs and requiring that the district provide evidence that the numbers need to be changed and that the district isn’t just padding their numbers to make themselves look better. (Cause clearly they aren’t obsessively concerned about numbers.)

Let’s assume for a moment that any corrections submitted by Dr. McNeal and Dr. Wardynski are completely legitimate.

Well then at the end of that presentation, we get to listen to this conversation between Mrs. Elisa Ferrell, recently elected board member for district three, and Dr. Cathy McNeal on the impact that special education students have upon the sacrosanct graduation rate.

Here’s a transcript of their conversation from this evening.

Ferrell: “What do we do about special needs students who don’t get a regular diploma? Is it a certificate of completion they receive? And they stay until they are 21. Are they counted in that number?”

McNeal: “They are counted in that number. All our students are counted. It’s ninth grade, who enters ninth grade. There’s no exceptionality.”

Ferrell: “So if as a city we have a higher percentage of special needs students who will not earn a diploma, that’s always going to be reflected in that number.”

McNeal: “It counts all of our students.”

Ferrell: “Okay. Thank you.”

McCaulley: “I think that needs to be clarified when people are writing in the paper. That um, graduation rate is going up, and we’re going in the right direction.”

Ferrell: “Dr. McNeal, do special needs students, what do they receive when they go through graduation ceremony? Is it a certificate of completion?”

McNeal: “In the past that has. It is in the process of changing right now. There will be opportunities for our students to receive. Now, many of our special needs students receive regular diplomas and advanced diplomas just because they are in special ed. We have the students who are in special ed that graduate with a regular diploma. But we do have students that are on extended standards. And those students do receive a certificate of attendance. But in the future those students will have the opportunity to receive a college and career ready diploma based on extended standards.”

Ferrell: “Thank you.”
. . .

Ferrell: “I have one more Laurie. What about people who leave public school to home school?

McNeal: “There is a classification for home schools. Some home school programs that we can denote. But most of them we can’t, but we do show that.”

Ferrell: “So, they count against our graduation records.”

McCaulley: “Wow.”

Ferrell: “Thank you.”

So what should you take away from this enlightening, uplifting, and clearly student supporting conversation between a board member and our Director of Assessment and Accountability?

Well, you should make up your own mind about that. (That’s what education is, after all.) But if you’re interested, here’s what I, a SPED parent, took away from Ferrell’s questions and McNeal’s responses.

Russell’s Take-Aways

  1. Our district (Ferrell in particular) is more concerned about numbers than actually educating students.
  2. Our district (Ferrell in particular) is more concerned about finding a scapegoat to sacrifice to the almighty percentage than educating children. (She gets that honestly though as her supreme superintendent believes that percentages are education, and Ferrell, like a good lemming under a gag order, doesn’t question that belief.)
  3. Our district (Ferrell in particular) is more than willing, nearly eager, to lay blame on those who cannot defend themselves: special needs children and, because they aren’t paying any attention anymore, home schoolers.

Feel free to add your own take-aways in the comments below, but allow me to offer the following apology: I am so, so sorry that my child might “hurt” your precious graduation rate at some point in the future. I’d take him out and home school him, but it seems that would hurt the poor little percentage, too. So you see, I’m stuck between scylla and charybis.

If only our district leadership cared about educating children as much as they care about their political careers and statistical “perfection,” what a wonderful world it would be.

Our District Leadership Wishes SPED Students would Leave

No one is surprised anymore that our district dismisses Special Education students. As Debra Jenkins documented on her excellent blog, Dreaming With Your Feet back in April 2014, Wardynski’s opinion of Special Education is paraphrased as follows:

I met [Wardynski] shortly after he moved to Huntsville and told him what I do. When I told him that I hated to hear that 10 of the families enrolled in my program had relocated to the city of Madison because they weren’t satisfied with Huntsville’s special education program, he said to me (paraphrased) … Good! Let Madison have them. Children with special needs are my worst nightmare. I never see their parents unless they are in my office, with an attorney, demanding something I don’t want to give them.

For the record, I’ve never been, nor do I know any SPED Parent who has ever been, to Wardynski’s office. I wouldn’t want him to turn “blue in the face.”

That our district wishes that all SPED students would simply leave is well known in our community.

No, what’s really interesting here is that neither Mrs. Ferrell nor Dr. McNeal seem to realize that much of what they were passing off as “truth” tonight was simply factually incorrect.

All Alabama High School Students Receive Diplomas, Even SPED Students

Take a look at this simple slide from a presentation I found on the Alabama State Department of Education website after oh, about 5 minutes of looking:

Diploma Pathways for Students with Disabilites PowerPoint

What does this slide teach us? Well, it teaches us that every special needs student, every single one of them regardless of their starting point, ends with an Alabama High School Diploma.

This is from a presentation dated April 2014. You may download the entire presentation entitled “Diploma Pathways for Students with Disabilities.” While you’re on the ALSDE site, you might also check out “Diploma Pathways for Students with Disabilities Memo,” dated April 24, 2014 and sent to every superintendent in the state which offers great detail concerning the three pathways for earning the Alabama High School Diploma.

I guess Dr. Wardynski was too busy wishing that the SPED students would just move to Madison to bother reading a memo from Dr. Bice.

But If I’m expecting too much for the superintendent to read a memo, perhaps Mrs. Ferrell, Dr. McNeal, or Dr. Wardynski could have just talked to any of the SPED middle school teachers in our district. If they had, any one of them could have shared with them the following “Selecting the Highest Pathway” form that’s been in use since 2013:


If only our board and district administration didn’t insist on their own infallibility, if only they realized the central basic tenet of education (that you are only wise when you realize that you don’t know anything), if only they cared about students as individuals rather than as percentages, then perhaps they wouldn’t have to be embarrassed to discover that zone lines were completely wrong or that they don’t know what the hell they are talking about when they claim that special needs students don’t earn diplomas.

You see, gagging teachers really does come around to bite you in the rear, doesn’t it?

In order for education to occur, there has to be freedom of thought and expression; there has to be a respect for the individual as an individual; there has to be the realization that no one person knows it all.

Until that returns to our district, all the public relations, all the gag memos, all the flawed consent orders seeking to unify our city, and all the scapegoating of our most vulnerable students isn’t going to make one damned bit of difference in the lives of our kids.

And that’s what education is for. Pity no one in the administration seems aware of this basic concept.

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


  1. I as a parent of a special needs student I am confused. I guess I’m stupid too. It was my understanding that being in special education my child would get some special accommodations and assistance that would allow my child to excel and not be hindered educationally by a physical limitation. I guess I should have known that HCS doesn’t care if my child learns or not, because you’re telling me that my child’s diploma won’t mean anything. So a special needs child in HCS is just being watched during the day, and after 12 years they’ll get an acknowledgement of attendance. I guess that’s an example of the bigotry of low expectations. I tell you that is not my expectation for my child. I guess we’ll be one of those folks the pulls out and finds a way to educate with the intention of educating – not making statistics look good. Won’t Dr-W be happy !!

    Another note – I wasn’t expecting this discussion. I thought your next blog would be laughing at the way Dr-W got slammed by the Fed Judge. Looks like SB should be cancelling his contract. What a cluster of incompetence and arrogance.

    1. There currently are various pathways for a special needs student to graduate: advanced diploma, regular diploma, occupational diploma, and certificate of attendance. These options are discussed with parents at the 8th grade transitional IEP meeting prior to the student entering high school.

    1. Thanks! Perhaps should have made it clearer that Ferrell is Mrs. Elisa Ferrell. 🙂

      Other than my lack of clarity concerning gender, however, I agree with and appreciate your assessment of Ferrell’s work as a board member.

  2. As usual, Russell, you have correctly filtered through and analyzed the motivation behind HCS. It’s about numbers and making those numbers look impressive to the politicians who control the money and influence business decisions. Educating children has been left to computers, Pearson, and satisfying the DOJ. It’s very disappointing and exactly why I am one of the 800+ educators who no longer work for such a system of education.

  3. Having taught SPED high schoolers before I was really surprised and discouraged to find out how the state of Alabama counted the graduation rate.

    Graduation rates are actually calculated by the percentage of students who graduate in 4 years, not just graduate period. So while our SPED, and general actually, population is allowed to remain in school until the age of 21 the systems are in a sense “punished” for it.

    For instance, I had a SPED student who ended up passing the needed parts of his graduation exams to receive a regular diploma. But even though he graduated, he counted against the graduation rates because he graduated in 5 years rather than 6. This occurs with the general population too but it occurs more frequently in the SPED subgroup.

    If we manage to keep kids in school and get them all the way to graduation, shouldn’t that count?

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