Strengthening special education through teamwork

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Ben Shirley, a senior at Kentucky School for the Deaf, talks to directors of special education at a conference held by the Kentucky Department of Education.
Ben Shirley, a senior at Kentucky School for the Deaf, talks to directors of special education at a conference held by the Kentucky Department of Education. Staff from KSD and Kentucky School for the Blind provided information about their schools, and staff members from KDE’s Office of Special Education and Early Learning detailed ways in which they can support and assist schools and districts.
Photo by Mike Marsee, Sept. 3, 2019

 

  • Staff members from KDE’s Office of Special Education and Early Learning detailed ways in which they can support and assist schools and districts.
  • One of the office’s goals is to improve communication and the dissemination of information.

By Mike Marsee
mike.marsee@education.ky.gov

Linda Alford said the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) conference with directors of special education is a sign of a strengthening partnership between KDE and the districts it serves.

Alford, the director of exceptional children services for the Beechwood Independent schools, and her colleagues from across Kentucky came together for a conference held by KDE’s Office of Special Education and Early Learning. It was designed to provide districts with information, support and even some pats on the back.

Alford said it was exactly what she and others in her position need.

“It’s a good partnership between KDE and the districts, and this is just phenomenal,” Alford said.

About 250 directors and assistant directors of special education and regional special education cooperative directors attended the inaugural Directors of Special Education Institute Sept. 3-4 in Lexington. Gretta Hylton, associate commissioner in the Office of Special Education and Early Learning, said she wants to make the meeting an annual event as part of the office’s larger goal of improving education services for students with disabilities and changing the perception of special education.

“Special education is not the place where students with disabilities go; special education is about designing and implementing specially designed instruction using evidence-based practices matched to meet individual student needs to improve outcomes for that individual kid,” Hylton said. “Special education should be a positive experience, and we should be seeing improvements in our students’ performance along the way.

“We must have high expectations for all students and provide them with the appropriate services in which they are entitled. We want to rewrite the narrative and get away from the thinking that ‘those kids’ caused a school to be a low-performing school.”

Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis and Deputy Commissioner Amanda Ellis opened the conference by sharing their support of special education programs.

“There is a need in Kentucky and across the nation to shift our thinking about exceptional learners. We have the moral, ethical and legal responsibility of ensuring these learners have access to a free, appropriate public education, with an increased emphasis on appropriate.

“Just like any other student group, high levels of learning is the expectation. Directors of special education are central to ensuring this happens in each Kentucky public school district, school and classroom. I am thankful for the leadership of Associate Commissioner Hylton and her staff in supporting these incredibly important district leaders.”

Hylton said the goals for the conference were to ensure that district personnel know who to contact within her office for support, that they have the resources and tools to assist with their day-to-day work and that they understand how the office supports and oversees special education and preschool policy, fiscal responsibilities, data and programming. She said the conference goals were tied to the overall goals for the office, which are aligned with KDE’s priorities as well as those of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

One of those goals is to improve communication and the dissemination of information, and Hylton said the elevation of what had been the Division of Learning Services into its own office last year offers an opportunity to improve in that area.

“By moving to an office, it empowered us to build a strong leadership team dedicated to special education and preschool programs. We should be able to do a better job as a leadership team of getting information out to local districts with consistent delivery messages and an open feedback loop,” she said.

Hylton said positive, proactive communication will be a priority for her office.

“We want to energize local directors by recognizing some of the positive things that they’re doing and celebrating them,” she said. “We want them to know that they have a staff at KDE that’s not just about monitoring and handing out corrective action plans. Yes, we do that, but that’s not what we enjoy. We want to help them on the front end and we want to see our kids thrive.”

Toward that end, there will be monthly webcasts modeled after the webcasts targeted to superintendents that will provide bursts of information, as well as quarterly webinars that will be focused on required federal components. Hylton and her entire leadership team are visiting regional special education cooperatives, and the leadership team went into the field at the start of the school year for regional trainings with directors of special education and their staffs.

Alford said a strong bond between KDE and the districts is critical to success at the school and district level.

“I think this is a new vision that Gretta has for local directors throughout the state, empowering them through the co-ops and through the districts,” she said. “If you don’t have that partnership between KDE and the districts, then you lose the whole vision of what’s happening with your kids.

“They’ve got some of the answers, we’ve got some of the answers. They’ve got questions, we’ve got questions. So we’re all in this together.”

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