Montgomery County largely follows legal requirements in providing special-education services but needs to go beyond that to more fully serve students and their parents in the high-performing school system, according to a report released Friday.
The study, requested last fall by the county’s Board of Education, says the school district of 156,000 students should consider hiring more psychologists, do more staff training and provide more information to parents on complex special-education processes.
The report also recommends that the school system — which has about 18,000 special-education students — develop a systematic way to review and improve services provided to students with disabilities.
“Some parents described some very difficult experiences,” the report said. “Overall, parents seem to want a better understanding of the special education process and more accountability from their schools.”
District officials say the report is slated for discussion at Tuesday’s school board meeting and will lead to an action plan.
“I think one of the big lessons is that we need to do a better job in educating parents about the process, especially as our non-English-speaking community’s numbers are rising,” said school board President Patricia O’Neill. “Navigating through the system can be mystifying and frustrating.”
The report was prepared by WestEd, a nonprofit educational research firm that used information from parent and staff focus groups and surveys, as well as staff interviews, classroom observations, document reviews and an analysis of district and state data.
Students receiving special education get individualized education programs, and the report examines how those programs are developed and implemented, and how disputes are resolved.
District officials said they were pleased about a finding in the report that a majority of parents of special-education students feel they are equal partners in the special-education process.
The report also noted stark gaps in achievement affecting students with disabilities. The four-year graduation rate in 2014, for example, was 70 percent in special education and 92 percent in regular education, the report said.
Selene Almazan, a Montgomery County lawyer and legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, said she was troubled to see the report’s data on state math and reading scores in 2013-2014.
About half of eighth-grade students in special education scored proficient in reading, while 88 percent of students in regular education did, she noted.
“While Montgomery County has made progress on educating more students with disabilities in general-education classrooms, they still have some work to do to close the achievement gap,” she said.
Chris Richardson, Montgomery County’s associate superintendent for special education and student services, said such numbers are a district concern and one of the focuses of the school system’s general strategy to close gaps.
Overall, “we believe the report is a good launching point for us to really focus our continuous improvements,” Richardson said.
The 2015-2016 budget for special-education programs and services in Montgomery is about $347 million.
A major flash point in special education is the resolution of disputes when parents and school staffers disagree about student services or other issues.
The report said the number of mediation and due-process hearings on student cases has declined steadily. Last school year, there were 84 such cases, down from 168 in 2006-2007.
The report said the district should collect more information about dispute-resolution processes and parents’ experiences. It also recommended that public reports be issued, at least twice a year, on the outcomes of dispute resolution as a way to increase accountability.
The report said that over the past three years, the most prevalent outcome in due-process cases was for parents to withdraw from the cases — a finding that one Silver Spring parent, Mary Greene, noted was left unexplained. Greene, who withdrew from a due-process case, alleged that parents drop such cases because of “scorch and burn legal tactics.”
In response, district officials said they are hoping that the review will lead to greater parent engagement, more collaboration and fewer disputes.
In other findings, the report suggested that Montgomery consider hiring more psychologists, saying that the school system’s ratio of students to psychologists — 1 to 1,451 — is “very high” compared with other Maryland school systems.
“It’s just not acceptable; I didn’t realize the ratio was that bad,” said Lyda Astrove, an advocate for special-education students.
Astrove said the shortage of school psychologists harms students waiting to be evaluated to see whether they need special-education services and those already in special education. “School psychologists are critical in the process,” she said.
The report also said the school system should develop a “cadre of knowledgeable parents” who could support other parents independently of the school system, and it recommended that the school system provide systematic training to school staffers who work withfamilies.
Julie Reiley, a co-chair of the school district’s the special-education advisory committee, said she appreciated that the board had asked for the examination. While she had not yet pored over the report, she said she has long believed Montgomery should have an office to support parents of special-education students, explaining parents’ rights and helping them advocate on their children’s behalf.