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Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and his wife, Rachel Vitti, are raising two children with dyslexia and have spoken about the need to improve services to children with special needs in Detroit.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and his wife, Rachel Vitti, are raising two children with dyslexia and have spoken about the need to improve services to children with special needs in Detroit.

‘Unofficial suspensions’ and 10 other reasons Detroit’s main district is overhauling special education

A transportation network that was so dysfunctional, students with special needs were left sitting at home for a bus that never came.

An understaffed placement center with a single phone line tasked with orchestrating special education in the Michigan’s largest school district.

A school assignment system that sometimes sent children to the wrong program.

“Weak” instruction for students with special needs.

Those were just some of the findings from an audit of special education in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti commissioned the report from a team of education experts soon after he took over the district last year, knowing it would reveal serious problems that have led to dozens of state and federal complaints.

The auditors were selected by the Council of Great City Schools, an association of large urban school districts, for their experience leading districts in cities including Los Angeles and Chicago. Last month, Vitti incorporated their recommendations into the plans he unveiled for an overhaul of special education.

Proposed changes include a new complaint hotline for parents, more teacher training, and a gut renovation of the district’s process for identifying students with disabilities and ensuring they receive appropriate services. One change the district has already made: swapping the phrase “special education” for “exceptional student education.”

Detroit’s main district is far from the only one in the state that is struggling to educate students with special needs. Michigan was the sole state in the U.S. whose special education programming was rated “needs intervention” by federal officials this month.

Indeed, by some measures the district is on par with its peers in Michigan. Its test scores and dropout rates among students with special needs — two key reasons the state was singled out by federal regulators — have improved in recent years, according to the audit.

That held true despite the auditors’ finding that the district enrolls a far higher proportion of Detroit’s highest-need special education students than charter schools in the city.

A look at the audit provides more details on the shortfalls in the district’s special education programs.  Here are some of the key findings in the 182-page document.

You can read it in full below.

Children with special needs were given “unofficial” suspensions.

Auditors heard “numerous reports” that teachers were sending misbehaved children home without documenting it as a suspension. The practice allowed teachers to skip the behavior management techniques that are required before an out-of-school suspension can be given. “Reportedly, all out-of-school suspensions are not being recorded properly, and instead students are being sent home ‘unofficially,’ ” auditors wrote. The district’s plan for special education says the district’s disciplinary practices will change, noting that “removals of students with exceptionalities without required and appropriate documentation” hurt students’ learning and violate federal law.

Students with special needs are too often placed in separate classes from their non-disabled peers.

Studies show that students with disabilities do better in math and language when they are placed in general education classrooms. But in Detroit’s main district, a “disproportionately high” number of students attend separate schools designed exclusively for children with special needs. In Wayne County, 6 percent of such students attend separate schools, and the figure is similar statewide. In Detroit, it’s twice as high: 12 percent of students with special needs are separated from their typical peers during the school day.

A busing system for special needs students is stretched thin, leaving some children waiting at home for days.

It can take as many as 10 days to add a new student to the bus route for students with disabilities. And, “if parents are unable to transport their child to a new school before the bus route is initiated, the student remains at home,” the auditors wrote. “Reportedly, this process sometimes takes weeks to resolve.”

The district has taken an unusual approach to special education programming: Students are grouped at schools based on their diagnosed disability — not on the services they actually require. As a result, students were sometimes bussed across the city even if a nearby program would have met their needs.

Data suggest that students’ disabilities are identified by failure instead of by early warning signs.

The percentage of students with disabilities in the district grows every year from the kindergarten to the eighth grade. “These figures suggest that students may not be identified before they have experienced academic failure when there would be more time for intensive interventions,” the auditors wrote.

A single special education placement center struggles to address the needs of the entire district.

The district relies on a single “placement center” to process students with special needs when they are first identified or upon their arrival in the district. Auditors noted numerous problems with the center: “The use of one phone line at the center substantially restricts placement center access,” they wrote, adding: “Parents are sometimes told by school personnel that the school does not have the ‘correct’ services for the student and to return to the placement center for another school option.”

The teacher shortage is especially severe in special education.

Detroit’s main district has 16 special education students for every one teacher, placing it in the bottom third of large urban districts nationwide. At the time of the audit, fully 37 teaching positions in special education were filled by long-term substitutes. Classroom aides are in even shorter supply in the district. The district’s aide-to-student ratio ranks among the bottom 20 percent of large urban districts, and it has struggled to fill dozens of vacancies. “These shortages affect instruction, service delivery, timely evaluations, and compliance,” the auditors wrote.

Some schools are overloaded with special education classes, making it hard for principals to keep up.

The percentage of students with special needs at each school varies widely — from 1 percent at Renaissance and Cass Tech high schools to 56 percent at the Detroit Institute of Technology, Cody. That’s because some schools have far more special education classes than others. “Hosting large numbers of specialized classes affects the ability of principals to support inclusive educational opportunities, intensive interventions, and transportation services,” the auditors wrote.

The district’s academic program for special needs students is “weak.”

The auditors found that the district was failing in the basic job of providing high-quality instruction to students with disabilities. The system for teaching concepts like math and reading was “weak,” auditors found. And when students failed to understand the first time, “interventions were poorly defined, were not regularly used, and training on them was uneven.”

English language learners were more likely to be diagnosed with a speech impairment — or to fall through the cracks.

English learners were five times more likely than their English-speaking peers to be diagnosed with a speech or language impairment. What’s more, the district struggled to identify learning disabilities in English learners before the sixth grade, perhaps because teachers couldn’t tell the difference between a disability and not speaking English. “These patterns raise questions about the district’s ‘child find’ and identification processes,” the auditors wrote.

And English learners virtually stopped receiving language help once they entered the special education program, according to the audit.

Even as teachers ask for help dealing with unruly behavior, the district employs only three dedicated behavior interventionists.

In focus groups, teachers told the auditors that they were having trouble with student behavior. Yet only three teachers in the district are dedicated to behavioral interventions.  “It is necessary for many more individuals to develop their own expertise to support positive student behaviors,” the auditors wrote.

Parents — not district staff trained in special education — were most likely to identify a child’s disability.

“Generally, a special education request is initiated through a parent request,” the auditors wrote, rather than through a school’s determination “that there was a basis for suspecting a possible disability and potential need for special education.” In other words, teachers didn’t have the time and training to identify special needs before they became unmissable.

Yet the district didn’t give parents a way to express concerns about their children. (Vitti’s administration plans to introduce a special education hotline this year.)