Special-Ed Getting New Computer System, Staff

Deborah A. Gist is the District's state superintendent of education.
Deborah A. Gist is the District's state superintendent of education. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008; Page B04

The District school system plans to spend $4.3 million on a computer system designed to keep track of special education students' academic life, replacing several systems plagued by bad data and an inability to communicate with one another.

During a news conference yesterday, D.C. State Superintendent of Education Deborah A. Gist also announced that the city plans to hire 30 full-time case management workers, at a cost of $3.2 million, so that students referred to special education can receive services more quickly

The initiatives are "a way in which we intend to serve students more effectively," Gist said. She was joined by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) at a news conference in the lobby of her office at Judiciary Square.

For years, city and school officials have criticized programs provided by the D.C. schools' special education office, which serves 9,400 students with physical or learning disabilities. The school system spends about $137 million a year on private school tuition for about 2,400 children it cannot serve in the public schools.

The initiatives stem from an agreement D.C. school officials reached in December with plaintiffs in a class-action suit, Blackman v. District of Columbia. The suit was filed by parents who said the schools were taking too long to provide special education services to their children. It resulted in a consent decree and a federal court order for the school system to eliminate a backlog of more than 1,000 cases awaiting hearing officers' decisions on the placement of students in special education programs.

Gist said the new computer system will monitor disabled students in the traditional school system and an additional 2,000 in public charter schools. The system will track student referrals to special education, transfers between schools, individual education plans and disciplinary actions.

Gist and other officials said the system will allow schools to better capture data that can be used to obtain reimbursement from Medicaid for health-related services provided to low-income students. Officials said the school system loses millions of dollars a year by failing to seek reimbursements.

The school system has been cited repeatedly by the U.S. Department of Education for submitting reports with inaccurate or incomplete data. Poor record-keeping has been a problem throughout the system and has been blamed for a range of problems, including errors in student transcripts and teacher payrolls.

Gist said the initiative involves cleaning up data in existing systems and training users to avoid inputting new errors. "We want to make sure frontline users understand the need for clarity and functionality of the system," she said.

Tameria Lewis, project director for special education reform, said in an interview that the case management workers should greatly speed the delivery of services. She said she expected that students would get help within 30 days of having their education plans approved. Now, in some extreme cases, it takes more than a year, she said, because no one handles case management full time.

"These are two important steps, but are by no means a comprehensive program," Ira A. Burnim, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the Blackman case, said in an interview.

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