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Here’s how the Detroit district plans to fix ‘glaring discrepancies’ in special education

Detroit’s main district announced plans to overhaul its special education program after an audit found that some schools aren’t meeting the needs of students with disabilities.

The report identified a widespread issue of schools not complying with “individualized education plans,” meaning students with disabilities weren’t receiving the additional instruction and supports designed to help them succeed. Staff frequently had trouble even accessing the documents detailing students’ specific needs.

A 15-page plan released Monday by the Detroit Public Schools Community District calls for deep changes to almost every aspect of its programs for students with disabilities. It also outlines the challenges the district will face as it tries to address parent concerns about special education, from filling 45 teacher vacancies to fixing “glaring discrepancies” in its system for identifying students with special needs.

The district in recent years has been hit with dozens of state and federal complaints about its special education program.

“I have never been in a district with that many complaints,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board committee Monday night as he presented the plan.

Though he said the number of complaints has gone down in the year since he took over the district, he said the district needs to improve the way it responds to parent concerns. For too long, he said, “parents felt their only recourse was to go to the federal level or the state level because responses weren’t being provided.”

Vitti promised to “revamp” special education as part of an ambitious strategy to improve the district’s academic performance. Called Blueprint 2020, the district’s master plan set targets for the next two years, but the district’s specific goals for special education weren’t previously made public.

They include:

  • “Completely overhaul” the creation and monitoring of individualized education plans). These documents identify the child’s special needs and spell out how the district will meet them. Federal law requires districts to comply with these plans.
  • Increase the number of students with special needs who attend class with their same-age peers.
  • Provide additional training to special education teachers and staff.
  • Fill 77 vacancies for teachers and staff who are trained to educate students with disabilities.
  • Reduce suspensions and expulsions of students with special needs by creating behavior plans for individual students.
  • Build trust with parents by creating a hotline for complaints, holding a bi-annual focus group, and conducting an annual survey.
  • Develop post-high school education options for students with severe disabilities.
  • Undertake a “comprehensive review” of programs that put students with disabilities on track to complete high school without receiving a diploma.

The plan was created on the basis of an audit conducted by the Council of Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts nationally. The audit itself is incomplete and has not been released, according to Julie Halbert, a lawyer for the organization.

Why are these changes necessary? For starters, the district may be unnecessarily identifying students as having special needs — one possible explanation for the fact that 16.6 percent of Detroit students receive special services while only 12.8 percent of students in surrounding Wayne County are classified as having special needs.

At the same time, students who are slated to receive special services don’t always receive them, parents have alleged. Staff told district auditors that they “frequently” lack access to student IEPs, making it all but impossible for them to comply with them, according to the document.

Students who do receive the right services, however, do so disproportionately outside of a regular classroom. Detroit lags behind the state as a whole in the number of students with special needs who are placed in mainstream classrooms, according to the document. Federal law requires school districts to place students in the “least restrictive environment,” and many educators argue that separating students with disabilities from their same-age peers hurts their learning.

Statewide, nine of 10 students with disabilities spend at least three-fifths of their day in a regular classroom. In Detroit, that’s only true for seven in 10 students.

What’s more, 10 percent of district students with disabilities attend a facility entirely separate from their same-age peers — double the statewide rate of separate instruction.

Scroll down to read the full document.