Photo by Carson Holtgraves
The Shawnee Mission School District is currently working to draft corrective statements following the results of a Kansas Department of Education investigation of the SMSD special education department led by state investigator Diana Durkin.
As outlined in the investigation report, the district is set to release statements of corrective actions to amend the issues found in an investigative report released on Dec. 22. The next corrective action statements, or plans to improve current issues, will be released on Feb. 1. Two statements have already been released, the first saying that the district will abide by the corrective actions created to amend special education issues and the second outlining that the district will ensure that all corrective actions will be in compliance with the state laws, according to Jackie Chatman, SMSD director of special education.
The corrective statements will specifically address the issue of gifted education services not being met; it was found that students were not spending enough time with their IEP coordinator and elementary students, therapeutic day program students and gifted students weren’t receiving sufficient support.
“We are always looking to improve services for these programs,” Chatman said. “It’s not a stagnant program.”
Last November, Liz Meitl, an SMSD parent, member of SMSD watchdogs, and education doctoral student with University of Kansas’ Special Education department, filed a complaint against SMSD special education, specifically about meeting student needs. Meitl talked to hundreds of teachers and drafted a formal complaint against the department, including allegations of misallocated resources, insufficient teacher-student communication and lack of certified special education teachers.
Although Meitl has found issues in SMSD special education at large, East special education parents, such as the Beth and Tom Schultz, have not had a problem with special education and have had positive experiences with their children.
“We have always had a positive experience with East special ed,” Beth Schultz said.
In her investigation, Durkin interviewed teachers, principals, National Education Association representatives and Chatman. Durkin concluded that there was no unfair misallocation of resources within the special education department. However, in the report, she states the district special education students were not receiving services outlined in their IEPs — independent education plans. According to state law, schools are required to provide benefits to students found in the IEPs.
The report said at the time of the investigation there were seven vacant positions for district employees that required specific certification, and several of these positions remained open during the first semester. In the report, Chatman says that these positions change almost daily based on changing needs and demographics within the district. The investigation also found that the issues only affected 30 cases out of 3,700 students with IEPs.
“As part of the corrective statements, the special education department is looking to address all 30 of those problems,” Chatman said.
Special education staffing reports show the district’s inability to keep consistent staff, according to Meitl. For example, an art therapist quit in the middle of the first semester. According to Meitl, he couldn’t deal with district leadership. Therefore, due to lack of consistent staff, many students have not been receiving support as promised in their IEPs.
“People who aren’t getting the services they need, often don’t know it,” Meitl said. “They can’t advocate for themselves if they don’t know what they’re not getting.”
Chatman and the district say changing demographics are to blame.
“The field of special education is considered a “hard to fill” field, Chatman said.
According to the investigation, gifted enrollment dropped from 1366 to 1066 between the 2012-13 and 2016-17 school years. In contrast, Metil believes that the root of the problem is understaffing — and a “culture of the wrong priorities” created by district leadership.
In addition to serving students with disabilities, special education also encompassses student who have been identified as gifted. SMSD employs 19 gifted teachers and 280 certified special education teachers for a combined student to staff ratio of 1:50, according to the report, under the special education umbrella.
According to MJ Gore, director of the National Special Education Advocacy Institute, there is not a national student to staff ratio. However, state laws are expected to be met, meaning students are expected to receive benefits found in their IEPs.
Although there is no national average as a comparison, Meitl believes teachers are overworked.
“They give the teachers way too much to do,” Metil said. “Their caseloads are too big. They don’t have the right curricular materials. They don’t have the space or time”
A typical day for gifted teachers at East includes leading class in addition to preparing IEPs and meeting with students and parents individually outside of the traditional school day, according to East gifted teacher Alex Migliazzo.
“I do spend more time on IEPs than I would like,” Migliazzo said.
However with two gifted teachers, East hasn’t seen a huge impact of overwork.
“Having small class sizes and a small amount of assigned work for the students to complete over the semester, I believe that the teachers have no problem handling the class,” junior Connor Sawalich said. “And [East] has two great gifted teachers with gifted offered all hours of the day.”
According to the investigation, teachers spend an average of three hours per IEP and an additional 15 to 60 minutes meeting with students, outside of class time. Teacher caseloads can range from 81-112 students, causing meeting times to drop to a reported 5- to twenty- minute meetings, which is not in compliance with state laws.
As shown in the investigation document, Meitl spoke with SMSD staff members who admitted that [the staff] did not respond truthfully to a survey sent out regarding the investigation.
“Frankly, I think they’re afraid for their jobs,” Meitl said. “And it’s very hard to uncover any systematic issue in 30 days. Especially when there are people who are not telling the whole truth.”
Meitl hopes that by filing the complaint, parents will pay more attention. Specifically with the new board members who were sworn into office in early January, and a new district superintendent who will be hired in March.
Yet, Meitl feels that this act alone will not amend the issues found in the SMSD special education department.
“I think the district needs new leadership at the district office in the SPED department,” Meitl said. “Somebody who understands how to support teachers and create effective systems which provide equitably and reasonably for all students with IEPs.”
As for the district, Chatman and district staff remain optimistic; “We continue to meet the needs of students with disabilities in Shawnee Mission providing them the best education possible to ensure each has the opportunity to achieve to their full potential,” Chatman said.