WSSD Board’s Special Focus is Special Education

Wallingford-Swarthmore School Board

By Katie Crawford

Every meeting of the Wallingford-Swarthmore School Board includes a special focus area. This week, Dr. Megan McCullough, the director of secondary special education, and Gina Ross, the director of elementary special education, presented the board with a fascinating macro view of the special education program in our district.

Their presentation began with a historical perspective on special education in our country, beginning in the 1950s, when most children with special needs were educated in the home or in an institution. During the administrations of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, legislation began to be passed relating to individuals with disabilities.

In 1975, two pivotal laws were created. First, the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act which, while no longer in use today, served as a first step towards regulating special education. Second, IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires schools to provide individual or special education and is still in effect today.

As a result of this legislation, all special needs children — ages three to twenty-one — must be educated at the public’s expense. This education must be tailored to the individual needs of the child, and must prepare the child for the next step in his or her education, or for the transition from education to work.

Special education designation is determined by a variety of behavioral, language, and cognitive assessments, input from parents, teachers, outside providers, and, if age appropriate, students. At least one classroom observation is required as part of this evaluation process. Once a child is recommended for testing, the district has 60 days to complete the evaluation.

In order to be deemed eligible, a child must have an identifiable disability AND show a need for specially designed instruction as a result of this disability. The state of Pennsylvania recognizes 13 areas of disabilities.

This year the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District was part of the cyclical monitoring conducted by the state, on site, which occurs every six years by a trained team of professionals from the Bureau of Special Education (BSE).

There are five components of this evaluation: facilitated self assessment; teacher, parent and student interviews; classroom observations; educational benefits review; and file reviews. In the facilitated self-assessment, the district was found to be compliant in 17 out of 20 areas.

The noncompliance came as a result of the district not having an official confidentiality policy, the suspension of a student with an intellectual disability, the percentage of students in the least restrictive environment, and the absence of a check mark in the transition section of a parent invitation to an IEP meeting. In nine months, the BSE will be back to make sure that corrective action has been taken to address these issues.

Nearly 17% of the students in WSSD receive special education services. The district is allocated a flat fee per special education student; funding does not change depending on the type and severity of the disability. While the state average is 15.6%, our percentage is in line with other schools in Delaware County. Four years ago, 18% of WSSD students received special education services. At this time, the district strengthened the pre-referral process and added more supports before evaluating students for special education. Additionally, student who had mastered their IEP goals were exited from special education.

The percentage of students receiving services outside of district schools is also above state average, but McCullough and Ross report that they are constantly looking for ways to provide services internally. McCullough and Ross pointed to an Emotional Support program that was developed in-house, which means very few students now need to be sent out to receive emotional support services.

New Business Manager

In other news, Martha Kew was unanimously approved as the district’s business manager, replacing Dr. Lisa Palmer, who becomes WSSD superintendent as of July 1. She was warmly welcomed by interim superintendent Dr. Michael Pladus and the board. Ms. Kew thanked board members for their support, and stated how much she was looking forward to joining their team and getting started.

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