Friday, June 01, 2001

Report: Special ed pupils forgotten

Covington schools under fire again

By Lori Hayes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — A state investigation of some of the city's schools describes a system in which special-education and troubled students are often shortchanged and sometimes forgotten.

        After a series of harsh reviews and state audits, Covington Independent Schools — nearly a year into districtwide reform efforts — is again under fire.

        The Office of Education Accountability, the Kentucky legislature's education watchdog, found that Covington staff had violated several state and federal laws, particularly those regarding special-education students.

        However, state officials did not recommend sanctions or disciplinary action because of Covington's quick response to address the problems.

        “We're committed to making those kind of changes,” Superintendent Jack Moreland said.

        Responding to complaints about special-education services, attendance and the district's alternative program for troubled students, OEA in March and April investigated four of Covington's schools — First District Elementary, Sixth District Elementary, Holmes Junior High and the Covington Academy of Renewal Education, or CARE.

        Among the concerns cited in a report of OEA's findings:

        • Special- education classes were left without teachers for weeks.

        • Teachers improperly changed special-education students' federally mandated education plans.

        • Special-education teachers didn't get proper training.

        • Classes were without adequate books and materials.

        • Habitually truant students were not pursued.

        • The district's alternative school — CARE — was a dumping ground for students not wanted by their assigned schools.

        “If these students are not served well and appropriately ... the district will never be able to ensure that all of its students reach proficiency,” the report stated. “A substantial proportion will be left behind.”

Watchdog target

        Independent of the state Department of Education, OEA was created by the General Assembly and reports to the Legislative Research Commission. The agency is charged with monitoring the state's education system and implementation of the Kentucky Education Reform Act.

        OEA is the second state agency to target Covington schools.

        The Kentucky Department of Education conducted a series of audits of Covington schools last year that spurred major reform efforts in instruction and management.

        “You can only do so many things at one time,” Mr. Moreland said. “That's not an excuse, but it's not like we weren't trying to address problems in the school district.”

        While Mr. Moreland said OEA's investigation was just a snapshot of the district, he did not dispute the report's accuracy.

Guidelines ignored

        Federal guidelines require that every special-education student have an individual education plan that outlines what type of services and instruction the student needs. OEA cited several examples of when those plans were improperly changed or not implemented at all.

        “Clearly that's a violation of the law, and it should not happen,” Mr. Moreland said.

        Covington administrators also circumvented school councils by hiring special-education teachers without involving the councils, which are responsible under state law for hiring staff, the report found.

        “I'm not saying what we did was right, but there were decisions that had to be made to staff the schools,” he said.

        District officials are reviewing students' education plans, and training is set for special-education teachers and administrators this fall.

        The district will also provide extra or remedial instruction for “all students deprived of special education services because of a lapse of service delivery,” the district said in its written response to OEA.

        Allen Bernard, special-education director, is retiring at the end of the school year, and the district has already hired his replacement.

        Mr. Moreland would not release the name of the new director on Thursday.

Truancy not tracked

        The district also cited Covington's pupil personnel director Lester Gamble, who by state law is responsible for monitoring student attendance, for not keeping track of truant students. Several students who had missed more than 10 days of school this year had not been contacted.

        State investigators said Mr. Gamble was assigned to too many other duties. Mr. Moreland, who said he had piled too many responsibilities on Mr. Gamble, plans to reduce that workload and establish a monitoring system to regularly review student absences.

        Finally, OEA found “substantial and systemic” problems with CARE, many of which stem from the troubles in the special education program:

        Hundreds of students' education plans had not been implemented. Counseling was given by untrained staff. And students did not get adequate books and resources.

        And with no clear entrance and exit requirements, students were improperly assigned and held at the school.

        The district is developing new criteria for students to be assigned to the school and clearer steps for transitioning students back to their assigned schools.

        Some of the staff members involved in the violations no longer work for the school district, and others will be reassigned, Mr. Moreland said.


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