Houston ISD’s administration rolled out a long-anticipated list of fixes to its special education programs Thursday, unveiling plans aimed at rectifying the district’s persistent problems with serving students with disabilities.
In a presentation to HISD’s state-appointed school board, Superintendent Mike Miles said the district plans to improve disability evaluation processes, bolster parent engagement and reduce achievement gaps between students receiving special education services and their peers. The steps are outlined in a new Special Education Action Plan.
HISD expects to reach those goals by training more employees on identifying and serving students with disabilities, including general education teachers, principals and office staff. Only special education employees completed the training in previous years, said Stacy Venson, HISD’s deputy chief of special education.
The district also released documents this week showing 20 percent of principals’ annual evaluation — which is linked to school leader merit pay — will be tied to special education metrics. At the high school level, principals who earn top evaluation marks stand to make $65,000 more annually than principals who receive the lowest ratings, according to a draft plan.
And in coming weeks, HISD will consider boosting special educator pay next school year under the new plan to attract and retain top talent.
Miles said the process will likely take time, given the state of HISD’s special education department. The district has struggled for more than a decade with well-documented special education problems, and it remains off-track on several key improvement targets, according to records obtained by the Houston Landing in September.
“There’s no magic pill,” Miles said. “This is a big ship that we’re going to have to turn. It’s going to take more than a year to do that. But we have the (special education) department in good hands and things are already moving in the right direction.”
But already this year, more than three dozen schools lack access to a speech therapist as the number of students needing those services has increased, said Stacy Venson, deputy chief of special education for HISD. The district eliminated nearly two dozen contracted school psychologists and educational diagnosticians ahead of the school year, but Venson denied that any speech language pathologists were cut.
The district is working to recruit people for the speech positions, including private contractors, although the professionals are in high demand due to a nationwide shortage. HISD plans to review the surrounding districts and revise its compensation plan accordingly to attract and retain those specialists. In the meantime, the district is expanding teletherapy services and offering compensatory speech sessions after school and on the weekend to address the existing gap in staffing, Venson said.
“We’re in Houston, where they can work in the medical field and make a different type of salary than they would in public education,” she said. “That’s also a challenge in this area.”
Not everyone was impressed with the slideshow presentation or the three-page plan.
“It was not as robust as I thought,” said Jane Friou, who leads the Houston Special Education Parents Association. “I do not feel like that is going to improve anything for my kid.”
Veronica Cohetero has three children receiving special education services in HISD schools. She was happy at first when she heard the new superintendent stress the importance of challenging all students in the classroom. But the supportive, glowing picture that Miles has described is far from the reality that she witnesses on campus, she said.
“I really wish what they are painting is what was actually happening,” she said.
Some parents and advocates have raised concerns that special education students may not receive the accommodations outlined in their Individualized Education Program due to a highly specific and apparently rigid instructional model introduced by Miles that is based on high-engagement, fast pacing and grade-level content.
But the superintendent denied the allegation Thursday night when board member Angela Lemond Flowers posed the question, calling those concerns the “elephant in the room.”
“The SPED students are getting the services that are outlined on their IEPs,” Miles said. “If that IEP says more time, then you’re going to see kids with more time. If it says we’re going to have one-on-one instruction or audible instruction, then you’re going to see that.”
I’m not qualified to say whether this is a good plan or not. For sure, HISD has long fallen short of delivering special education services to its students, and to whatever extent Miles and crew can improve that, I hope they succeed. I’m just not willing to take his word on anything at this point, and this exchange above is an illustration of why. Every time anything critical is said about Mike Miles or his plans for HISD, his first response is to deny, and he usually follows that up with a claim that his critics are misinformed, often adding that they are spreading falsehoods. I’ve yet to see him acknowledge that there’s merit to anything a critic has to say. What he’s doing may work, and I hope it does, but I’m not buying what he’s selling. He hasn’t come close to earning that.
And as noted in that other story, special education is a statewide challenge.
As a former school board member and sitting member of the Texas House Public Education Committee, state Rep. Gina Hinojosa thought she could easily figure out how to get her son enrolled in special education.
School districts are required by law to conduct detailed evaluations for students suspected of having a disability within 45 days, at no cost to families. But after more than a year of waiting for her son’s dyslexia to be evaluated, Hinojosa was so frustrated she ended up paying about $2,000 for a private professional to do it.
At one point, she called Austin ISD’s central administrative office to ask about the delay.
“The problem is all over the state,” the administrator responded. “Nobody has enough people to do the evaluations.”
It’s a long story, so read the rest. This obviously adds to HISD’s challenge, and if one is inclined to cut them some slack this would be a decent reason for it. This probably needs a federal solution to alleviate it, but that’s obviously not in the cards right now.