WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange School District presented an action plan to address violations in its special education department at the Jan. 22 Board of Education meeting. The violations were found in an audit of the department completed in December 2017, and the action plan focuses on five goals intended to correct the violations, strengthen the special education program, and allow for better communication and parental involvement.
According to Director of Special Services Kristin Gogerty, the action plan was based on interviews with district teachers, administrators and parents, as well as surveys taken by employees and parents. The first goal of the action plan focuses on instructional programs and the curriculum for special education programs.
“Within the audit a common theme that emerged was the need for the establishment of a curriculum for special education students who are placed in a self-contained autism program,” Gogerty said at the meeting when presenting the plan to the BOE members. “In developing curriculum, some of the activities that will fall under this objective would be to develop program philosophy, research effective instructional programs and assessment practices.”
A transition framework will also be established for the students who need it, as well as expanding curriculum to include community-based and daily living activities at the elementary school level; those activities are already incorporated at the middle and high school levels. Individualized education plans, or IEPs, will also be monitored more closely by special services staff.
“In looking at this point, we have to be realistic in that it’s very difficult to provide every special education program in every building,” Gogerty said, meaning that not every program will be available at every school in the district. “So we really have to evaluate the IEP needs, the demand of the program and how we’re delivering it building by building.”
The second goal of the action plan aims to maximize communication between the department and parents, as well as within the special services department. As a part this, Gogerty said department processes and legal compliance will also be tracked.
“The critical element here is to focus on developing a special services procedure manual,” she said. “This would be helpful for not only staff in our department, but for staff outside our department that might not be as familiar with special services. It could be used as support for staff across the district.”
The committee who will write the manual is comprised of Child Study Team members, school psychologists and social workers, and speech and occupational therapists. Gogerty and the committee members have been looking at manuals to which similar districts in the area refer, and hope to have West Orange’s completed by the end of the year.
She also spoke about effective communication with parents as being a goal of the new action plan, and working with the West Orange Special Education Parent Advisory Council.
“We really worked with the chair of SEPAC to disseminate” information, Gogerty said of the meetings scheduled between the department and the parent group. “And we worked with the building principals to use the buildings for activities.”
Training for paraprofessionals and other special services staff, the third goal, was also highlighted in the action plan, and Gogerty said professional development will take place more often in the next two years.
According to the audit of the special services department, there were violations that involved the development of students’ IEPs, and Gogerty said the action plan’s fourth goal will focus on complying with state special education mandates as well as writing staff statements and reports.
“One component of the audit was the record review, and within the full audit report there were multiple areas of noncompliance,” she said. “They varied in percentage, but it’s certainly an area that does require attention and remediation.”
The final goal of the action plan will revolve around how the district is evaluated on its special services department and the classification rate of special education students.
“This goal will require collaboration between the special services department and the school counseling department,” Gogerty said. “Within the audit, out-of-district classification rate was found to be high compared to other similar districts and this is an area that we’re starting to really delve into.”
BOE member Sandra Mordecai thanked Gogerty for the plan, along with the rest of the department’s staff, saying the December audit was comprehensive and “a shock to most of us.”
Vice President Mark Robertson wanted to clarify that there would be a checklist to assure the action plan is being closely followed.
“I ask this because we went through this before,” Robertson said, referring to a 2014 audit that also showed violations. “There was a stack of over 100 audit violations, and we had an action plan then. I guess my concern is going from great plan to execution and quality assurance.”
Gogerty responded by saying that she and the staff meet weekly to review certain IEPs as well as the department.
“We can certainly compile the information that we collect based on our review,” she said. “We can have that conversation about what the common trends and patterns that are emerging are. So it’s certainly something that will be ongoing.”
Ellen Gilio, chairwoman of the West Orange Special Education Parent Advisory Council, is pleased to see the district working on a plan to improve special education.
“We thank the director of special services for putting together the plan under the time constraints,” Gilio told the Chronicle in a Feb. 6 phone interview. “We feel it’s a great start. We look forward to continuing to make action plans addressing the audit, including working with parents and teachers.”