A Tense Situation
MCPS chief tackles special education issues with parents
Anyone who’s attended a Listen and Learn session hosted by MCPS schools superintendent Joshua Starr in recent months has heard a quick rundown of his resume as he introduced himself to county residents.
But when Starr met Tuesday night with the Special Education Advisory Commission, he took care to detail his experience both as a teacher and administrator dealing with emotionally disturbed students in New York City.
That’s because the session marked the first time in 12 years that a MCPS superintendent had met with special ed parents and Starr seemed intent on setting a new tone. Jerry Weast, Starr’s predecessor, had never met with the committee, which is comprised of parents, MCPS staff and others who advocate for kids with special needs.
That’s why there was some tension in the air among the 75 or so parents and roughly 25 staff members gathered in the auditorium of the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville.
After detailing his experience, Starr said he’d learned that “high quality instruction is the best behavior management.” And that “a whole series of choices that adults make along the way do a great disservice to kids.”
“I believe,” he said, “that we need to provide access to the core curriculum with appropriate supports in the most efficient way possible.”
Noting that MCPS has 17,000 special needs students, he said the district needs to figure out how to deal with the complex nature of special ed. Determining shared interests between schools and families is key, he said.
“Everyone’s got a story. Everyone’s got a situation,” he said. “We need to understand what the problem is.”
And that means tackling big issues like figuring out how to better prepare classroom teachers for dealing with special ed students. “Every teacher is expected to be a special ed teacher and an English as a second language teacher,” he said. More professional development will help, but finding the money to pay for it is difficult.
Another hot-button issue among parents is the cost of mediation for those who can’t come to agreement with school administrators on an individualized education program, or IEP, for their kids. Starr noted that while there were 393 applications for mediation in 1998, the total dropped to 121 in 2011. “That’s pretty good,” he said.
But what would be an acceptable number? Starr acknowledged that “one could argue that one is too many. Everything should be resolved at the table.”
The fact that the number of mediation requests has dropped “means it’s not all bad,” he said. “There must be something that’s working out.”
A murmur among the crowd seemed to indicate that some parents don’t agree. “It’s possible parents can’t afford the litigation,” one parent noted, garnering scattered applause for an issue that’s one of the greatest sources of tension and distrust between parents and MCPS.
That tension was exacerbated by a 2005 Supreme Court decision in a lawsuit brought by a family against Weast. The court found that the burden of persuasion in an administrative hearing challenging an IEP is properly placed upon the party seeking relief, whether that is the disabled child or the school district, according to the Legal Information Institute of the Cornell University Law School.
Starr responded that the statistics are a starting point for asking better questions. “It doesn’t tell me there’s a major issue, but it also doesn’t tell me all our problems are resolved,” he said.
Circling back, he stressed that MCPS and parents need to work on building trust by defining their shared expectations when dealing with special ed kids. That includes alleviating tension felt by educators who don’t know whether they’ll be able to meet all of a student’s needs and satisfy a parent’s desires.
“I want us to stop thinking about this in terms of power dynamics and think about practical ways to reduce tension,” Starr said.