CUSD special ed under fire
After facing challenges with Columbia School District’s special education programs, several parents decided to address their concerns during Monday night’s school board meeting.
One of the parents had spoken to the board last month and decided to return to give an update on the status of her child.
Angela McConachie, who said at the last meeting that her son was not receiving adequate assistance with his learning difficulties, told the board about her recent meeting with Columbia school superintendent Dr. Gina Segobiano.
“We sat and talked for a period of about three hours, but honestly I left that meeting more terrified than when I went in,” she said.
McConachie told the board that her son’s scores from an AIMSweb assessment indicated a need for intervention, but the district made no attempt to reach out to her or give her son accommodations.
Accordingly, McConachie did not discover her son’s struggles until he was in seventh grade and was caught cheating on an exam. Her son then admitted to being unable to understand the class material.
“He had failing results of 10 percent in fifth grade for reading. He is now in eighth grade,” she said. “At the time, (the superintendent said) he went to his teacher for help and the teacher provided him accommodations without my knowledge.
“They worked well for him, but those accommodations didn’t transfer. And there’s no documentation recognizing that the school asked this teacher about my son’s situation.”
AIMSweb monitors student progress as part of a school’s Response to Intervention. The program involves a multi-tiered approach for reading and math.
For Tier 1, everyone student receives the same instruction while being assessed at regular intervals to ensure performance is at the desired level. Tier 2 involves more intensive instruction for students who do not make the appropriate progress.
Tier 3 moves to individualized, intensive interventions to target students’ learning deficiencies. Students who do not respond to the Tier 3 approach are then evaluated for eligibility for special education services.
During Monday’s meeting, McConachie said the district is not using AIMSweb appropriately to determine a student’s progress. She said the assessment evaluates students below the 35th percentile as needing targeted intervention.
However, she told the school board the school district looks at students in the 25th percentile and below as needing intervention. Segobiano said students in the 35th percentile reflect a student scoring in the average range of AIMSweb data.
“Each student is administered the same universal screener, AIMSweb, that identifies the top scores (well above average) to the lowest score (well below average),” she said. “The students who typically score in the lowest two categories (below average and well below average) are identified in the pool as candidates who may need extra support.
“If a student scores in the 35th percentile but whose grades and daily work reflect a need for additional support, the classroom teacher recommends Tier 2 participation.”
An AIMSweb report states there are default cut scores for reading, math, written expression and spelling. Two cut scores are provided for each grade level with the higher cut score separating Tiers 1 and 2.
For early literacy and early numeracy measures, that cut score is at the 35th percentile. It is at the 45th percentile for any other measures. The lowest cut score divides Tiers 2 and 3 and is at the 15th percentile for all measures.
When McConachie approached middle school administration regarding her son’s 10 percent score on the AIMSweb reading assessment, she said they chalked it up to him having a bad day.
McConachie later discovered through outside testing that her son has Primary Language Disorder. He has difficulty comprehending what he is reading as well as issues with verbal expression.
She said her son received summer help and is now “doing well with a little bit of help.” He is in the Columbia Middle School English RTI class and improved from the 32nd percentile to the 71st percentile on the AIMSweb. He also is receiving assistance for ADHD through the school, though McConachie said his disability is not related to inattentiveness.
“His confidence is a lot higher. And the other thing is he actually looks forward to going to school now,” she said. “I’m grateful for this whole process, but I’m terrified for the other kids.”
Following public participation, Segobiano explained more about RTI to board members, including what the three-tiered model involves.
“The RTI program targets the bottom 20 percent of students in the district and provides additional reading instruction to those students to increase achievement,” she said, adding that changes to the program would come from a team of reading specialists, teachers and administrators.
Josh Boyer, father of local cancer warrior Lydia Boyer, also brought forth issues his family faced with special education in the school district. Boyer said his public comments should only serve as a means to address what needs evaluated with the current system.
“In May of 2016, out of the blue, my daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer,” he said. “This came as a total surprise to us and we found ourselves in need of special education services.
“Now, I don’t have an agenda or an axe to grind. In fact, my wife and I struggled with whether we wanted to share this with the board.
“But I thought if I talked about the problems we faced with special education that it would address what can be seen as a gaping need in the school district.”
Boyer told the board how he and his wife, Kayla, went back and forth with the school district on getting Lydia the services she needed after her cancer diagnosis. When asking for a full-time aide for Lydia, the administration seemed opposed to the idea.
“We were having an (Individualized Education Plan) meeting. It seemed like everything was going fine until we asked for an aide for our daughter,” Boyer said. “The room grew visibly awkward at that point.
“At one point, they tried to tell us that we didn’t even need an aide since there were so many other teachers around but we said that we wanted one specifically for Lydia. My daughter has stage 4 brain cancer.
“She has blindness in one eye and is deaf in one ear. She can’t hear very well. She is in diapers. If anyone qualifies for an aide, it would be her. So when we were told that, we were surprised, and frankly, astounded.”
Segobiano said the need for an aide is typically determined based on safety and a physical disability.
“The need for an individual aide is determined at the IEP meeting with consensus of the IEP team members including parents, teachers, special education teachers, and an administrator,” she said. “This determination cannot be made until all information is shared at the IEP meeting.
“Parents and teachers often times request a need for an individual aide, but the determination is not made until the official IEP meeting where data is shared.”
Boyer said the school proceeded to debate the legitimacy of the request and even challenged a doctor’s note he received recommending Lydia have an aide. According to Boyer, the aide was recommended by Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital in St. Louis.
The district eventually relented when the school nurse spoke up in the Boyers’ favor. However, the Boyers chose to move to utilize the Waterloo School District for Lydia’s needs instead.
“Columbia is a great school but its special education needs serious attention,” he added.