A guest blog from Denise Carter of TASB Student Solutions
Students receiving services through special education, Section 504, and English learner programs are among the most vulnerable in your district, and often the most challenging to appropriately educate. These programs are guided by numerous laws and policies and have complex requirements with the potential for identification of non-compliance and litigation. To effectively meet the needs of students in these programs and maintain program compliance, it is vital that comprehensive, practical, written procedures be in place. However, that is only the first step to enhance the educational experience of these students. Intentional, systematic, ongoing reviews of your special programs can increase the chances of student success. Engaging in the program review process is a proactive step that can benefit your district. Benefits include monitoring compliance, increasing alignment and consistency, fostering communication among stakeholders, potentially avoiding costly, time-consuming litigation, and ensuring that varied and demanding needs of students in special populations programs are met.
Districts can engage in systematic and ongoing program reviews with their own staff or have one completed by an external entity. Whether done internally or externally, these reviews can provide valuable information regarding overall compliance and effectiveness of a program at a given moment in time. Program reviews can be powerful means to address concerns, expand on identified best practices, and establish procedures around specific program requirements. To truly impact student success, a program review should not be a one-time occurrence but a systematic and ongoing process focusing on continuous improvement.
How a district engages in this process will vary depending on their specific needs. A program review may be comprised of one or more components including targeted review of documentation, focused stakeholder interviews, and classroom observations. Whichever piece or combination of pieces is used will depend on multiple factors which could include historic areas of concern, identified areas of noncompliance, adherence to information provided in professional development, and/or concerns articulated by a key stakeholder. The remainder of this article will focus on documentation review.
A documentation review includes two parts. First is the review of individual student records. Special education, Section 504, and English learner programs each have specific requirements. Documentation of decision-making meetings, parent communication, and other relevant components showing adherence to requirements should be kept in a folder specific to the child. Whether kept electronically, in paper format, or both, these folders need to be regularly reviewed to ensure necessary components are included. It is recommended that this be done monthly, and that a checklist be used to document findings. The second part of the documentation review is a review of the written procedures and practices that are needed to effectively execute the program. These should be living documents that are updated as needed and reviewed at least annually to confirm written processes and actual practices are aligned.
To assist in planning how a systematic and ongoing program review will be carried out, consider the following:
- Who? Will district and/or campus-level personnel will complete the activity, and will be the same people each time, or a rotating group? Will individuals from outside the particular program area be included?
- What? Which documentation will be reviewed and will the paper and/or electronic versions be used?
- Where? Will the components occur at a central location such as a district office or at each individual campus?
- When? How often will the activity be completed?
- Why? Identify the purpose of a specific activity before engaging in it. Think about the individual needs of your district and establish criteria to be used prior to starting.
- How? How will data/information attained from this process be used to impact individual student performance and overall continuous improvement? How will the information be shared with relevant stakeholders? What training and/or what updates to written processes should occur to address identified issues?
Establishing and implementing an intentional, systematic, ongoing program review process does not have to be an overwhelming and time-consuming task. Review the district’s specific data and determine the greatest area of need. Start with that area and build from there. As this process continues, the district will establish what works best to meet their current needs and address any issues that are found.
For this process to be successful:
- Acknowledge and celebrate what is working well.
- Address issues honestly, openly, and without blaming.
- Recognize the complexity and challenges of providing services to students in these programs.
- Remember the goal is continuous improvement. This is not a ‘gotcha’ activity.
- Make the activity meaningful by following up with information and training.
(TASB Student Solutions provides customized full or partial program reviews for school districts in the areas of special education, Section 504, English learner, and gifted and talented. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 888-247-4829 or visit https://www.tasb.org/services/student-solutions.aspx to learn more about our services.)
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