Administrators: Setting up the Special Education Program

As the Building Administrator, it is your job to create the best structure possible for special education services that promote effective and purposeful instruction and services for students served by an IEP.  You may delegate some of these responsibilities to another person in the building, but make sure you remain the decision- maker on this one. In the many schools I have visited, I have seen over and over again where someone other than the Building Administrator is in charge of special education and have met Principals who act like they couldn’t change the system in their building if they wanted to, because
“Dorothy, the Guidance Counselor does all that for me and if I try and mess with what she does, I’ll have to do it”. I once saw a system where the regular education teachers determined when students would receive their Specially Designed Instruction (from now on to be referred as SDI). When I asked for more information, I was told that the general education teachers wanted to be in charge of when special education students left their classroom.

For many years, the bulk of my involvement in special education as a Building Administrator was scheduling the special education teachers’ time. I needed to decide when they would be where and what students would be with them during that time. What the students did during that time really wasn’t something I thought about, it was more of makings sure the IEP minutes for each student was covered. And, when the schedule was done and there happened to be a class period where the special education teacher didn’t have any, or hardly any, students? That became the co-teaching time, of course!

So, what do you want to accomplish with your special education services in the building? The following are suggestions, but make sure you involve multiple stakeholders as you build the goals for your program. Bring folks together early in the second semester to start this work and involve both regular and special education teachers, paras, and parents.

  • All IEP services and instructional minutes are delivered
  • Efficient use of your special education teacher or teachers and paras time
  • Ensuring that students in special education have access to the best teachers for instruction for what they need as well as access to core curriculum
  • Allowing flexibility in the structure so students receive what they need according to periodic reviews of data
  • Securing time for collaboration between regular education and special education teachers and paras
  • Providing for time for adequate training for paras before they start serving individual students
  • Creating a system for communication to all teachers who serve individual students
  • Set up regular time to collaborate with your AEA team
  • Develop a structure that is individual services based instead of program based
  • Make sure that special education students have access to everything that general education students have access

When I was teaching in a BD program a thousand years ago in Des Moines, I was so lucky to teach with a group of teachers and had an administrator that was willing to look at special education services differently. At that time, we had a typical structure at our middle school of 750 students, where 125 of those students were entitle to special education services. Students were assigned to teachers in rooms. If you had a behavior goal, you came to me in my classroom. If you were MD you went to the two teachers across the hall. All the other students were considered “resource” and were assigned to a teacher they saw one period a day. My room had the letters “BD” over the door and the room across the hall had “MD” over the door. It pretty much took an act of Congress when the MD teachers and I decided it would make the most sense for us to SHARE a student. That never happened. This sounds like an old model, but this is a model I see frequently in buildings today.

We knew that students weren’t being served in the best structure so we asked if we could change things and our Principal, Mike Zelenovich, said yes.

MAKE NOTE OF THIS! The Principal said yes. If he has said no, nothing would have changed. I know it’s a big risk to say yes. Say it anyway. In fact, say it more times than you say no.

Back to my storyJ Our goal was to make sure all the students in special education got the instruction and services they needed. We met after school got out (no pay, by the way) as an entire department and we put all the things we thought our students needed on big sheets of white paper around the room. Things like social skills instruction, reading instruction, math instruction, self-contained behavior services, in-class support, functional skills, etc. Then we put the students’ names on the pages; we looked at every IEP of every student and determined what each student needed. Then we put our names on the pages. From there, we built a schedule for what our time would look like to make all of this happen. AND IT WORKED. It worked so much better than what we did before!

(Side Note: It was during this time that we realized our BD students didn’t need to be in a classroom all day just because they might need that kind of setting a few hours a week or a few weeks a semester. We also talked about how no one, including ourselves, would learn to behave in a classroom of 17 students who all had behavior issues. We developed a position called a Behavior Interventionist that could serve students with significant behaviors in the regular classroom setting. Another huge success. This model is described in detail in a blog I wrote on October 22nd of 2014.)

Start the development of your structure with the needs of your students at the forefront. Don’t start with services and programs and then fit your students into those services and programs. Start with what your students need and then fit your program and services into that. Will this stress your staff? Probably, but that’s okay. What is not okay is to ask them to do different things and then offer no support. Work with your AEA team as you build your system and ask them for support to coach teachers in new strategies.

When I first took a position that put me in charge of PK-12 Special Education in a 4A district, I noticed a phenomenon I was not aware having worked primarily in secondary schools up to that point. I will call it the Floating Time SDI Model.  Individual special education students would be assigned to the special education teacher for SDI for a set amount of time. Sally comes for Math from 9 to 10 and for Reading from 2:10 to 2:55. Billy comes for Reading from 8:50 to 9:50 and for Writing from 1:45 to 2:15, and so on and so on. These students all go to the same teacher.  Every student technically got their IEP minutes for each goal area with their special education teacher, but the reality was that they really go very little instruction. I would sit in the room and the teacher would continually have 5 to 8 students in the room, but the students would be coming and going all the time. No one was grouped for instruction! When I brought up that this is a big problem, I am told that it is too difficult to get multiple grades of students grouped together for Math or Reading or Writing instruction. I would also question the amount of time that students were receiving for goal areas. Oftentimes it would be 60 minutes per goal area. Then I would be told that Mrs. So and So really likes to have her students for 60 minutes, so that is why the IEP is written this way.

After multiple observations, I realized that the student may be in the classroom for 60 minutes, but they were lucky if they received 5 minutes of any kind of direct instruction. Most students got a few minutes with the teacher at some point and then worked on some sort of worksheet activity the rest of the time.

Here’s the solution to this problem. Keep kids in the regular classroom way more and provide as many services as you can in that environment. When the student needs intensive instruction, make it short bursts of time where they can be grouped with other students who need the same intensive instruction. It might be 15 minutes three times per week. Or 10 minutes every day. It might be with the regular education teacher, if that is what works for you and your schedule. Also, have as much continuity in your regular education schedule as possible. If all students have 120 minutes of Literacy at the same time, it is much easier to group students for Reading SDI from multiple grade levels.

At the MS and HS level, I see time dictated by class periods. Students can only receive SDI from the special education teacher in 42 minutes blocks of time every day or every other day. At the district I used to work in, middle school students received their SDI Learning Skills class every day, but when they went to the HS they had to go every day for 40 minutes because they didn’t have any classes on a half-day schedule. When I pushed back on that I was told that Infinite Campus wouldn’t schedule every-other-day at the high school. They also needed every day in order to earn two credits per year in the Learning Skills Class.

One very big decision you can make as a HS Administrator to help you get out of this particular mess is to not have IEP goal support classes (Learning Skills, Study Skills, etc.) be for credit. Making this a credit class increases the LRE time for students unnecessarily. Have the special education teacher pull the student out of study hall for 30 minutes three times per week. Or have them work with the regular education teachers who may help them to determine that pulling a student the last 15 minutes of their block class makes a lot of sense.

Many of these classes I see as I travel about are really homework support classes, not intensive instruction around goal areas. Make sure you only have students with a special education teacher when they are receiving intensive IEP instruction. Getting that report done for Government class is not SDI.

I know of some places that have an “RTI Time” or “Seminar” or “Homeroom” time at the beginning or end of the day and special education students go to their SDI teacher then. Although this makes things very easy in your schedule, it is not okay. Remember the goal of making sure that special education students have access to all things that regular education students receive? If you make the decision that all special education students are going to miss out on this time, you are saying this time isn’t very valuable to students. This is often time where students get to receive help as needed form their Core teachers or where an entire class gets guided study time for a test, or this is where the students receive their PBIS lessons. Of all the students that need this, I would think students on IEPs would be at the top of the list!

Remember that you don’t have to necessarily follow the IEP that comes with the student. No, you can’t change it all by yourself, but you can certainly contact the special education teacher and suggest some things that could be changed in the IEP to benefit the student. If the IEP team agrees, the changes can be made via an amendment. Don’t just follow an IEP you know is too restrictive for a student. Ask questions, make recommendations, and push for a better IEP!

When it comes to paras, make sure each para’s time is specifically planned out and that they have had training on the needs of the specific students they will be serving. If I have a conversation with one more para that has not seen the student’s IEP or BIP I am going to poke my own eyeballs out!!

The most important piece of your planning is to make sure that students on IEPs have meaningful access to Core Curriculum instruction. When students are pulled out of the regular education classroom for special education services, you need to be sure that they are intensive, purposeful, and effective. This instruction should be in addition to the continuum of supports you offer, not instead of those supports. Although there will be some students who need longer periods of SDI instead of the other supports, this decision should only be made because the data you are gathering shows this to be the case, not because all Level 2 students go to the special education teacher for Science instead of the regular Science class. Special education students have the right to access the full continuum of services; that includes Title 1 and At-Risk and MTSS time. Also, remember that SDI can be provided by a regular education teacher using the collaborative model. Students on IEPs have the right to receive instruction from the most qualified teachers.

Having access to Core Curriculum requires that special education teachers and regular education teachers have time to collaborate. You need to build this time into your schedule. If you just assume they will find time themselves, it is likely not to happen. You also need to make sure you have regular communication with the AEA team assigned to your building. I always had weekly meetings when I was at a large school, but they were monthly when I worked in a small district. Regardless of the size of your school, get that time scheduled and on the calendar for the entire year.

Once you finalize and communicate what this structure will look like, you are the person who is ultimately going to hold the staff in your building accountable for delivering the services. The best way to know what is happening is to do walk-throughs specifically looking at what is happening with special education students. This includes walk-through of general education classrooms. What do you see? If you walk into a special education classroom and you see everyone working on homework completion, or everyone doing worksheets, or instruction that is way below or has no connection to the Core Curriculum, you need to address this immediately!! Look at what paras are doing as well. I’m sure many of you have had the lovely experience of walking into a SDI classroom and finding six students with six paras and a teacher in the room. That’s a good opportunity to change the para schedules to provide support in additional areas of the building.

Whew! This one was much longer than I anticipated. To summarize the big points:

  • YOU are in charge of managing the special education structure in your building.
  • Access to Core Curriculum instruction is a priority for students on IEPs.
  • Paras should be adequately trained and be familiar with IEPs and BIPs of students
  • SDI time should not replace instructional time that regular students receive
  • Special education instructional time does not need to be a class period
  • Make sure students are grouped for instruction
  • SDI is not homework completion
  • Make sure you have allocated time for collaboration
  • Start with what your students need, not with what you have
  • You need to say YES many more times than you say no
  • Do walk-throughs of all classrooms to make sure the structure is being implemented
  • Have a set time to collaborate with your AEA team
  • Students in special education should have access to everything that general education students do; SDI should be in addition to all the other supports on the continuum
  • Have a process of setting expectations and involve others in creating those goals
  • Regular education teachers can provide SDI under the Collaborative Model.
  • You can change an IEP via the amendment process