GARY | Sharida Cobbins refused to sign her son's Individualized Education Program because she doesn't agree with his placement.
Collins, of Gary, has a son who has an autism spectrum disorder. He is a Jefferson Elementary School sixth-grader in a class geared to students with emotional disabilities.
"I didn't sign his IEP because I don't agree with his placement," Collins said. "He needs to be with students who are more like him. ... I do believe his teacher is working hard with him and I see some improvement, but I'd still like to see someone working with him who has a specialty in autism."
The Indiana Department of Education has been working with Gary Community School Corp. since 2008 to resolve compliance issues in the special education department, the most serious among them being poorly written IEPs. Other problems include high suspension and expulsion rates, a disproportionate number of students with disabilities, and low numbers of special needs students included in general education.
According to the law, students should be educated in the least restrictive environment along with nondisabled peers as much as possible.
Gary, like other school districts, works with students who have a variety of needs, including autism, developmental delays, physical disabilities and defiant, disruptive or emotional disabilities.
The IDOE last fall assigned Barbara Butcher, a school psychologist with more than 20 years experience in special education, to work with the Gary Community School Corp. for two years.
State, consultant cite multitude of issues
Butcher said she has been in classrooms but is mostly working with administrators. She said it took a long time for Gary's special education program to decline and will take time to work its way out.
"There are many challenges in the Gary schools, such as an aging staff and a neglected infrastructure," Butcher said. "The technology for students and staff is very dated, which limits its functionality. There is very little continuity in the system in terms of following processes and procedures. The school buildings function as if they are all separate entities, and this invites chaos.”
Butcher said new special education Director Marianne Fidishin is expecting administrative accountability. She said Fidishin is trying to "run the program and fix it" at the same time -- no easy feat.
Butcher said Fidishin is conducting workshops to educate parents about the special education laws and practices. Fidishin is trying to partner with community resources such as Indiana University Northwest in Gary, to improve outreach services.
Janice Grskovic, interim associate dean/coordinator of special education programs in the School of Education at IU Northwest, said she is seeing greater receptiveness from Gary administrators and teachers.
She said the attitude of Fidishin and new Gary school Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt is open and positive.
"Dr. Fidishin is knowledgeable and knows what things ought to be in place," Grskovic said. "People are resistant to change but for the first time in Gary, teachers are going to be more involved in the IEP process."
Pruitt said, "I am fully aware of the compliance challenges the district has in special education, and I am doing all I can to move special education in the right direction."
Butcher said the district has a new data system called SunGard, which originally was void of the necessary special education components. This oversight caused many problems with reporting and student logistics.
Butcher said the Gary district also has a disproportionate number of students referred to the special education program. She said Gary, like districts across the state, have begun using Response to Instruction, known as RTI.
RTI is a process to allow school staffs to identify at-risk students and design interventions to meet their needs. Students need remediation for many reasons, such as poor attendance, but that does not necessarily mean they are disabled. As a result of this practice, students referred to special education has decreased because of effective interventions, many NWI superintendents said.
"Sometimes we rush misbehaving students into a long-term, overly structured program, when all they may need is a counselor or an adult mentor,” Butcher said.
Butcher said Gary educators have to look at ways to keep students in school rather than suspending or expelling them.
“The district also does not do a good job of keeping students in their home school. ... Having children away from their home school can be very difficult for them and their parents,” she said.
"Gary needs to move full speed ahead in terms of inclusion," Butcher said. “There may be some schools who are doing inclusion, co-teaching and providing classroom accommodations for disabled students, but it's not near the level that it should be."
New special ed director working to correct problems
Fidishin began her duties in Gary in August, a month after Pruitt took over. She said the district is collecting data on a large scale, something she said has never been done, to ensure the data and fiscal reimbursement match.
She said about 20 percent of Gary's student population, just fewer than 8,000 students, are in special education; 99 of those are in the preschool program at Bethune.
Fidishin said she has put into place a number of new requirements, including that all suspensions and expulsions must be approved by her office. She said there isn't a school district in the country where 100 percent of the IEPs are perfect, but she said the district is working to improve its process.
"Our goal is to make sure that students are (placed) in the least restrictive environment," Fidishin said. "That doesn't necessarily mean that all students who are autistic need to be placed in the same classroom. That doesn't mean that all students who have an emotional disability need to be in the same classroom. It means they need to be in a classroom at the appropriate level. ... That's the law, and that's ultimately what's best for students."
Shirley Fisher, a Marquette Elementary School teacher who works with students from kindergarten through third grade, said some of her students are mainstreamed for math, and all are mainstreamed in special classes like music and art.
As improvement occurs over time in Gary's special education program, Fidishin said another of her goals is to improve the district's ability to identify and help as early as possible students who need special education services.
"We intend to put out a mass media effort in our childfind screening process," she said. "We want to alert everyone in the community when we hold the screening for developmental disabilities. It's a way to capture the children in the community who need assistance and do our part legally and ethically."
* This story has been altered to correct a name spelling.