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MPS special-ed audit results seen as ‘a real opportunity … that can only make us stronger’

The audit recommended a series of changes that would allow special educators to focus on remediation while reading specialists focus on literacy.

Currently 6,400 students receive special-ed services.
Currently 6,400 students, or one-fifth of the student body, receive special-ed services.

Yesterday, this space carried a story about an external audit that found major deficiencies in Minneapolis Public Schools’ [MPS] delivery of special-education programming. District leaders were unable to comment for that story before MinnPost’s deadline.

Tuesday morning, Rochelle Cox, interim executive director of Special Education Services, and Susanne Griffin, chief academic officer, made time to put the audit in context.

A few short hours later, the two presented both the audit’s findings and their thoughts on a strategic overhaul of special-education services to the Minneapolis School Board.

“This impacts the district beyond special ed,” Griffin said. “This is about a practice shift, but also a belief shift in a culture shift. I see this as a real opportunity that’s very exciting, that can only make us stronger and better.”

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The board members, while appreciative of the plans presented at the evening meeting, appeared disappointed.

“I understand the talk here about thoughtful and deliberate,” said board member Carla Bates. “I also know there is so much anger here, for myself, for friends, for people I don’t know, who felt year after year, ‘My kid isn’t getting what they could from the system.’ “

Board member Tracine Asberry concurred. “I expected a little more pain, to be honest,” she said. “I wanted to hear what was in the way.” 

Carla Bates
Carla Bates

Superintendant Bernadeia Johnson defended the presentation. “People try to make reports like this palatable,” she said. “The truth is the defensiveness is already there. This has been an issue in this district for 30, 40, 50 years. Just know there are people who are going to push back.” 

The outside review, performed by the Boston-based District Management Council, concluded that MPS lacks the capacity to provide effective basic literacy instruction to all of its students, which only compounds the challenges that its pupils with disabilities must surmount.

Coaching for elementary teachers

Because the district as a whole does so poorly in reading instruction, the report recommended assigning literacy instruction coaches to all 725 elementary-level teachers. It also called for changes at the secondary level, noting that MPS does not have a mechanism for identifying students who arrive at middle school or high school illiterate.

The district commissioned the audit last fall as part of a larger focus on reducing disparities in practices that keep students out of mainstream classrooms, said Griffin and Cox. The information gleaned is intended to help shape a three-year redesign of MPS’ special-education programming.

“I’m not so naïve as to think there are not going to be emotions attached to this, and there absolutely ought to be,” said Griffin.

She hopes teachers hear that the changes will come with support. District leaders are already working to share tools and strategies that will help more students with disabilities spend more time in general education classrooms, she said.

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“We can’t wait for everybody to be comfortable with the changes that need to take place, because that will probably never happen,” said Griffin. “But we also don’t want to put kids in places where people are not equipped to meet their needs.”

Currently 6,400 students, or one-fifth of the student body, receive special-ed services. The majority of those students have little access to the most effective literacy teachers, the audit found.

At the same time, MPS’ corps of special education teachers — 1.7 times the size of comparable districts’ staffs — are so bogged down with other tasks they are able to spend just half their time in direct instruction.

Recommendation: separate focuses

The audit recommended a series of changes that would allow special educators to focus on remediation while elementary and secondary reading specialists focus on literacy.

On the job just two months, Cox has spent much of her time in the job so far visiting special-education teachers and aides and talking to staff about changes on the horizon, she said in an interview Tuesday.

In March we started having some honest conversations,” Cox said. “We know there’s a sense of urgency.”

She was anxious to ensure teachers and other district stakeholders knew the audit praised MPS educators’ skills and dedication. The authors’ recommendations would free special-ed teachers up to do what they do best.

“The District Management Council has brought us to a crucial moment,” said Cox. “I’m really proud of the strengths that were addressed.”

Opportunities in tandem

Cox and Griffin said they were pleased that the audit identified opportunities to strengthen both general and special education in tandem.

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“One of the things we see in the report is an opportunity to strengthen services to students by building collaboration between special-ed staff and regular-ed staff,” said Griffin. “Students could and should be getting reading instruction in their general ed classrooms.”

Griffin also identified reading instruction at the high school level as an area of particular urgency.

“We have to develop a secondary reading strategy, and put some very strategic supports in place,” said Griffin. “Lots of staff doesn’t get instruction in that because we assume that by the time kids are in secondary school they can read.”

Richard Mammen

Finally, both Griffin and Cox have deep roots in serving students with special needs. Both have ideas for relatively simple changes school leaders can make to make it easier for special-ed resource teachers to spend more time supporting general-ed teachers.

“We can help teachers feel more confident about developing positive rituals and routines to help kids stay in the classroom even when they are frustrated,” said Griffin. “This really is the work of all of us. Special-ed students should not be experiencing MPS as a parallel district.”

In the end, board Chair of Richard Mammen cautioned that the nine elected officials would be watching. “We talk about courageous leadership like it’s simple and it’s all we need,” he said. “We are united in expecting change. Director Bates’ anger is something I share.”