Changes to Pittsburgh special ed worry advocates

Advocacy group questions city model 'stretched thin' by budget tightening

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Members of Pittsburgh's Local Task Force on the Right to Education, a state-mandated advocacy group for students with disabilities and their parents, are concerned about a new special education model scheduled to begin this fall in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

That model reduces staff numbers and integrates more special education students into regular education classrooms. At the same time, class sizes throughout the district are slated to increase as the district grapples with looming budget deficits.

The task force released a statement last week that praised the district's decision to mix special and regular education students in more classrooms but cautioned against overwhelming teachers with too many students.

"We are concerned that learning support staff will be stretched thin between students, classrooms and even school buildings," the task force statement said.

While no one from the district was available to address details of the plan, Pittsburgh Public Schools spokeswoman Ebony Pugh wrote in an email, "We've spent the past three years developing a more comprehensive, reliable and robust professional growth system to support teachers with the aim of accelerating academic achievement and eliminating racial disparities."

The new model will rely more on regular education teachers to implement the individualized education programs, or IEPs, of special education students, according to Nancy A. Hubley, Pittsburgh director of the Education Law Center, which works closely with the task force.

An IEP is an agreement between a parent and a school district that outlines the services that the district must provide to a student with a disability. If the district does not provide the stated services, a parent can file a complaint to the state Department of Education's Bureau of Special Education.

Depending on their IEPs, special education students in regular classes work with special education teachers either inside or outside the classes, said Pamela Harbin, Local Task Force co-chairwoman. But some special education students are taught exclusively by regular education teachers who receive training and support from special education educators outside the classroom.

Her son, who has autism and is going into fourth grade, is fully included in classes with regular education teachers, who meet with a special education teacher for support. His IEP also mandates that his teachers meet with the special education teacher for at least 15 minutes per month, but the latter does not work directly with him, Ms. Harbin said.

The district is increasingly moving toward this "collaborative consultation model," asking regular education teachers to play more roles for more students, said Ms. Hubley.

The district announced this spring that it is laying off about 285 teachers and other professionals for the coming school year, including 58 special education teachers. It also said it is laying off 14 paraprofessionals who help students with physical disabilities and behavioral issues.

The question for parents of students with disabilities is whether the district will be able to follow IEPs while moving toward the new special education model.

"We all have been trying to move toward more inclusive models of education for children with disabilities," Ms. Hubley said. "... Are those supports there both for the children and the teacher? I think we're going to have to wait and see. I think the district is trying to do that."

But the task force statement also said the district still lacks a system for monitoring the progress of special education students in regular education classrooms.

It also raised concerns about the district's communication with parents of students with disabilities.

Ms. Harbin said she is not sure if, or how, her son's services will change next year.

"If a parent called now and said, 'How are my services going to look next year?' I don't have an answer yet," she said.

But Ms. Harbin said she is confident the district will work with the task force.

"We have to make sure that the plan in their head is something that can be implemented effectively," she said.

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 6, 2012) Parents of special education students who believe the school district is not following their child's individualized education program, known as an IEP, can file a complaint with the state Department of Education's Bureau of Special Education. The agency to which complaints can be filed was misidentified Monday in a report on changes to special education in Pittsburgh Public Schools.
education - neigh_city

Marcus Schwarz: or 412-263-1964. First Published July 2, 2012 12:00 AM


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