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Gary special education funding hinges on improvements

Updated: December 16, 2012 2:44AM



The Indiana Department of Education won’t release federal special education money for the Gary Community School Corp. until it is satisfied the district is making progress in complying with federal regulations.

Specifically, the state wants to see immediate improvement in the timely recording of individual education plans and a reduction in the suspensions and expulsions of special education students.

In addition, the DOE has assigned a staff member to work full-time at the Gary Community School Corp. to work with special education teachers to correct systemic issues that have dogged the district for years.

It appears progress is coming at a slow pace. Of nine deficiencies cited by the state, three have been corrected and one is pending. The rest are still outstanding.

The state has become frustrated with the district over past failed attempts to improve compliance with federal special education laws, especially in the area of suspensions and expulsions of special education students.

DOE spokeswoman Stephanie Sample said the Gary schools are responsible for 10 percent of all suspensions and expulsions of students with disabilities in Indiana. The statewide rate is 1.54 percent, compared to Gary’s rate of 14 percent.

“Despite IDOE’s constant attempts to support them, the rate of suspension and expulsion for students with disabilities has practically doubled in the past three years,” Sample said.

The district is also failing to meet federal laws regarding the mainstreaming of students.

Sample said 279 of 288 students with emotional disabilities are taught in a self-contained environment or alternative setting.

“This is unacceptable,” Sample said. “Federal laws require students with disabilities to be educated with their peers in the least restrictive environment possible. GCSC’s students with emotional disabilities spend less than 20 percent of their day in a general education settings. Self-contained environments and alternative settings are supposed to be the very limited exception — not the norm.”

Sample said state officials believe it’s the first time a DOE staffer has worked full-time in a school district.

That staffer, Barbara Butcher, has been a frequent visitor in schools, said new executive director of special education and student services director Marianne Fidishin, who was hired by new Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt who joined the district in July. The state hopes Butcher can guide the district to design self-sustaining practices. The state is requiring the district to adhere to the Butcher’s recommendations.

Fidishin said Butcher, who will spend two years in the district, is working with teachers to establish behavior intervention plans that address root causes and to develop strategies to correct bad behavior. Fidishin said the student code of conduct is being reviewed to see if it should be revised.

Fidishin said schools had lagged behind updating individual education plans, also required by federal laws.

“The state wants to see more of a sense of moving forward,” said Fidishin. “We were very fortunate to have the state as our partner in this. It’s provide a lot of education consultants to help address our needs.”

The state briefed the School Board on the problems recently. Members expressed concern at the gravity of the issues.

Board member Barbara Leek noted the strings the state has attached to federal funding. “The money won’t come automatically since the district has been noncompliant for so long.”



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