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Team effort cuts referrals to special ed

As referrals for special education testing back up, two schools have found an approach that more quickly helps borderline students.

By KENT FISCHER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2000


A dozen teachers, counselors and specialists squeeze around a conference table at Lake Myrtle Elementary School. Questions fly as they try to figure out why a first-grade girl still cannot read simple words, such as "not" and "or."

Concerned about the girl's slow progress this year, her teachers have asked the school's Pupil Assistance Team for help.

For 40 minutes, the discussion pingpongs across the table. The reading specialist offers some ideas, while others suggest activities that have worked with other children with similar problems.

"This has us meeting as teachers," said Lake Myrtle first-grade teacher Donna Shoen. "This has forced us to get together and say, "Well, have we tried this?' "

Armed with ideas for a fresh approach in attacking the girl's problems, the teachers leave the meeting with a directive to write a summer "action plan" for her parents.

They'll start on that the very next day.

But this scene -- a school-wide effort to identify and promptly execute a plan to help a student with a stubborn learning problem -- is unusual in Pasco schools.

When teachers can't crack a student's learning problems, they often end up referring him or her to a special education program and assume their job is done. And that, according to Ray Gadd, is nothing more than "responsibility dumping."

"Our reason for being isn't to get kids tested (for a learning disability)," said Gadd, the district's supervisor for student services, "it's to provide them with an intervention that works."

Some kids need special education. But Gadd wants more Pasco schools to adopt the Pupil Assistance Team approach, which promotes collaborative problem solving and forces teachers to stop unloading problem learners on the special education system. Based on the experience of educators at Lake Myrtle and Hudson elementaries, the benefits are many:

Kids get help more quickly: It takes on average of 129 days, the better part of a school year, to get into special education.

Quicker is better: While they wait, struggling students are frequently stuck in the same classrooms with exasperated teachers who have run out of ideas on how to help them. Often this happens during the critical early years of a child's education.

Quicker is cheaper: It costs twice as much to help a student in special education ($7,341) compared with other children.

That's why teachers at Hudson and Lake Myrtle find their Pupil Assistance Teams so valuable.

"You end up saving a lot of kids from (special education) programs that they don't really need," said Hudson Elementary principal Kathryn Rushe, whose school also uses the Pupil Assistance Team, or PAT. ". . . And we come up with interventions so the child just isn't sitting in class vegetating."

Helping kids more quickly

Hudson refers 3 percent of its students to special education, half the districtwide average of elementaries. And at Lake Myrtle, a child can be referred, evaluated and placed in a special education program in about 47 days, about a third of the time it takes at other schools

Special education "testing is the last thing we do," said Lake Myrtle principal Monica Joiner. "The kids that come up (to the Pupil Assistance Team) need some expert opinions, and their teachers walk out of here with new ideas they can try."

Vicki Dumois is a school psychologist serving Hudson Elementary, as well as two other schools that do not use Pupil Assistance Teams. At Hudson, she said, teachers are more apt to put their heads together to solve learning problems than are teachers at her other two schools.

"We can bring it to the table and try to tease it apart," Dumois said. At other schools, "The only help the teachers have is to try and get them tested" for special education.

Such a reliance on special education at most schools has led to a huge backlog in special education referrals and long waiting lists for services.

Nearly 500 Pasco students have been referred for special education this year but have yet to receive the tests and screenings necessary to determine if they are learning disabled. Help probably isn't coming this year; they'll have to wait until next school year for the evaluations. Once they're off the waiting list, they'll have to wait another 129 days before they are placed in a program.

'The ultimate lottery'

After months of badgering teachers and her son's principal, Zephyrhills mother Rhonda Davis finally got what she wanted:: A school psychologist would test her 7-year-old son for a learning disability.

That was in October.

Seven months later, Davis is still waiting for her son to be placed into a special education program at Woodland Elementary School.

"They told me it was a long, drawn-out process," Davis said. "They told me to stay calm, but it still took so long. I felt like his teachers were just passing him off."

William Sanders, a Tennessee statistician whose groundbreaking analysis of student test scores has thrust him to the forefront of school reform issues, says when students spend long periods of time with ineffective teachers, the results are serious.

Sanders charts student progress over several years and, through complex statistical analysis, measures the impact schools and teachers have on their students' academic growth. Sanders said the analysis consistently shows that even one year with an ineffective teacher can still be measured in student test scores four years later.

"The single biggest factor affecting student academic growth is teacher effectiveness, period," Sanders told Pasco educators recently. "The cumulative effects are so big that people have got to start thinking about this."

Sanders calls the teachers a student has over the course of his or her schooling "life's ultimate lottery."

That doesn't bode well for students on the special education waiting list. And there are more of them today than ever before.

Since the 1993-94 school year, the district's special education population has grown 85 percent to 11,841 students. By comparison, the total school enrollment grew 24 percent during the same time.

This school year, Pasco's 54 schools referred another 1,891 students to special education. The district employs 23 school psychologists, who spend almost all of their time testing kids and writing up the required reports.

School psychologist John Rendzio is responsible for evaluating the students referred at Sand Pine, Denham Oaks Elementary and Pasco Middle School. The three schools referred 109 students for special education this school year; 70 were still awaiting evaluation last month. Rendzio said that every time a school refers four new students for special education, his backlog grows by about a month.

"I'm behind on my paperwork, I'll be honest about it," said Rendzio, a 10-year veteran of Pasco schools. "As populations increase and the staff doesn't increase, the numbers (on waiting lists) will get bigger."

And that leaves parents like Davis searching for other ways to help their children during the long wait. For Davis, it meant moving her son to a new teacher who was stricter and more vigilant than his previous teacher.

"I got on the phone and I stayed on the phone, or else they would have let him slide," Davis said. "Nobody really wanted to do anything. I was ready to pull my hair out."

-- Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached at 800-333-7505, ext. 6241, or at 869-6241. His e-mail address is kfischer@sptimes.com.

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