Marysville School District tackling special ed issues

MARYSVILLE — Students with special needs and their parents can expect to see some new faces this fall in the Marysville School District.

The district made changes to the Learning Support Services program over the past year, and this summer hired three new directors to take over the program.

It is hoped that returning special education students will find classrooms that are safer and more conducive to learning and that teachers and assistants will be better prepared to teach and manage classrooms of students with a wide variety of needs.

Parents will also find a department and district administration that is more transparent and receptive to their needs, Superintendent Becky Berg said.

“The clear purpose of what we do is to raise student achievement and have kids find their niche and find their passion,” Berg said.

For special education students, achieving those goals requires extra attention.

In Washington state, students may be tracked into a special education program for any one of 13 different criteria, such as emotional behavior problems; physical disabilities such as deafness; learning disorders such as dyslexia; autism; or other unique needs better met outside general education.

Last year, approximately 1,650 students out of nearly 12,000 district-wide received some sort of help through the Learning Support Services department.

For students with these needs, consistency in their learning environment is often an important factor in determining their educational progress.

In Marysville, however, the previous school year was tumultuous for parents, students, staff and administrators. Last fall, incidents in a class at Kellogg Marsh Elementary School led some parents to allege teachers or support staff were abusive to their students.

This led to some staff reassignments and one teacher being placed on administrative leave for six weeks.

An investigation determined that no disciplinary action against the teacher was warranted, and the teacher returned to work in a different assignment, Berg said.

But for Melody Plumb, whose 8-year-old son, David, was in that classroom, the incidents disrupted his education.

David was reassigned to that class in October after the district eliminated his previous class. But the new class didn’t fit David’s learning style or his grade level, she said.

Plumb said she didn’t have a problem with David’s teacher, only that she felt the staff was overworked and suffered from a lack of training.

But then the teacher was put on leave midway through the year and a substitute brought in. That probably contributed to David not making any progress at all last year.

Then on Feb. 14, the two department co-directors, Ken Chovil and Tracy Suchan Toothaker, resigned with just 24 hours’ notice.

The incidents in the classroom and sudden resignations led to some parents testifying before the school board demanding changes and filing complaints with the state.

Berg said Chovil and Suchan Toothaker were not fired or asked to resign, and neither was subject to disciplinary action at the time of their leaving. “No one was waiting in the wings,” she said.

She declined to comment further on their departure.

As part of the terms of their separation, they were paid out the remainder of their full $112,867 annual contracts through the end of the year.

New leadership

The district hired two interim directors, David Gow and Bob Gose, to lead the department for the remainder of the year while it sought permanent replacements.

The new leaders have all worked in special education or school psychology, and all come from outside western Washington. They started work July 1.

The district has hired two directors, Ginger Merkeal and Pam Sanford, to oversee primary and secondary special education programs, respectively.

Leading the Learning Support Services department as the new executive director is James Stevens, who comes from the Eastmont School District in East Wenatchee, where he’d led the special education program for five years.

Stevens has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastern Washington University, is a nationally certified school psychologist and also served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantryman.

Merkeal came from the Mead School District near Spokane, where she worked as a school psychologist and special education director and administrator. Sanford came from the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District in Idaho, where she was the director of special services and earlier was a high school special education teacher.

Difficult work ahead

The new leaders of the program are in an uphill hike to develop policies and practices to address a wide range of problems.

“It’s kind of hard going into a situation and saying we have all the answers and we’re going to fix things now without meeting all the stakeholders,” Stevens said.

That includes the Marysville Special Education PTSA, whose president, Amy Sheldon, has met the new leaders and will continue to do so in the coming year, she said.

“I know it won’t change overnight, it’s going to be a process, but I’m pretty hopeful,” Sheldon said.

The myriad issues facing the district’s special education program are laid out in a report conducted by the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) last fall at the behest of Berg, shortly after she was hired.

Some of the steps outlined in the report have already been taken, Berg said.

For example, a program that served elementary-age kids with severe behavioral problems in a separate facility on the Marysville Pilchuck High School campus has been closed, and some of the children will be attending either Allen Creek or Grove elementary schools in the fall.

The review noted that due to the children’s physical separation from other elementary students and schools, they had very little contact with other children of their own age and were less likely to receive necessary services appropriate for their age group.

While the report said the district’s special education program was overall very good, it highlighted several issues that are more endemic and will take more time and money to address. Those include:

Providing for more training for teachers and paraeducators (in-classroom support staff who do not hold a teaching certificate);

Being more transparent and open to staff input before making decisions;

Building stronger relationships with parent groups such as the PTSA;

Making sure curriculum materials address the needs of special education students and are compliant with state and federal standards;

Reviewing whether the special education program is the best vehicle for serving each student in the program.

Problems with special education are common, and a large number of complaints filed with the state Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction cite problems with special education students’ IEPs, or Individualized Education Programs.

Leslie Lasher filed just such a complaint over problems her 17-year-old son, Keith, was having in school.

Keith Lasher, who suffers from attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, Asperger’s syndrome and learning disabilities that have him reading at the first-grade level, was mainstreamed into two classes at the Marysville Pilchuck Campus, but a promised paraeducator was never assigned to him. Keith flunked the two classes, and he was in danger of not graduating or being accepted into the district’s special education program for students 18 to 21 years old.

After meeting with the interim directors and getting Keith’s grades changed, Leslie Lasher said she’s more optimistic about the coming year.

“I totally feel like I’m going to have to stay on top of it,” Lasher said, “but I’m feeling a lot more hopeful that things are going to get better for Keith.”

Amy Sheldon also had to take an active role to ensure her autistic 18-year-old daughter’s educational goals would be met.

“I’ve learned that with my own child, I have to be very, very involved and proactive, and to make sure that she has everything properly put in her IEP,” Sheldon said.

Funding an issue

Money is also a problem for the program. Enrollment in the Marysville School District has declined in recent years, but the number of special education students has risen from 13.11 percent in the 2010-11 school year to more than 14 percent in 2012-13, according to the WASA report.

Federal funding for special education programs only covers up to 12.7 percent of a district’s student population, however. The difference — $2.9 million in the 2012-13 school year — comes from the district’s general fund.

“The other issue is that the federal government has never fully funded special education,” Berg said, requiring the district to run tax levies to bridge the even larger funding gap.

That has led the district to look for ways to reduce enrollment in special education, such as identifying students whose needs might be better served with other programs or among the general school population.

“To the maximum extent possible, we don’t want to have kids removed from their non-disabled peers,” Stevens said.

Changes happening

The district has already made other changes, holding a training session, called “Right Response,” for paraeducators in addition to teachers to help them calm volatile situations in the classroom and enhance student safety.

And Berg said she’s tried to reach out to the school community, attending PTSA meetings and meeting parents for informal coffee klatches. Two parents were brought in to sit on the committee of 19 people, alongside administrators and staff, that interviewed the initial pool of applicants for the director positions.

The PTSA’s Amy Sheldon, who was one of the parents on the committee, said the relationship with the district has already improved.

“It was a very frustrating past few years with the district, but I now feel very positive with the new changes,” Sheldon said.

Melody Plumb said she just hopes that the scrutiny facing the program will mean that it gets more support, and that the parents won’t need to struggle against the administration to get answers and help for their kids.

“If we have to go to school board meetings and get everything on the record all the time, it doesn’t make everyone seem approachable,” she said.

“I think we’re all pretty much burnt out and exhausted right now,” she added.

Plumb just wants to focus on raising David and making next year better than the last.

“This year is going to need to be about growing and learning,” Plumb said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165 or Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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