Some special needs kids still falling through DCPS cracks
DC Public Schools recently opened a second facility to serve DC parents who are concerned that their preschool-age child may have a disability or a developmental delay. However, as a judge's ruling made clear last week, ineffective managers of these facilities are allowing children with special needs to fall through the cracks.
This is not only tragic for these children, but extremely expensive when DCPS identifies their special needs much later.
On November 8, DCPS opened its second Early Stages center next to the Minnesota Ave Metro station. The program, which started in October 2009 with the opening of its first center at the Walker-Jones Education Campus in Ward 6, is free for all DC residents, as well as families who attend private schools in DC, who suspect that their child between 3 and 5 years of age may have a disability or a developmental delay.
The Child Find provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all states have a comprehensive system "to assure that all children who are in need of early intervention or special education services are located, identified, and referred."
This provision emphasizes the importance of early intervening services since providing services to children before they reach kindergarten "can have a significant impart on a child's ability to learn new skills as well as reduce the need for costly interventions over time" for children with developmental delays and disabilities as well as those with learning disabilities.
While DCPS, including Early Stages for preschool-age children, and DC Charter Schools are responsible for identifying students in need of special education services between the ages of 3 and 21, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education is responsible for identifying all DC residents from birth to age 3 in need of special education services.
Sadly, these obligations to the most vulnerable in the District are still not being met. Testimony in the continuing class action lawsuit, DL v. District of Columbia, demonstrates that DCPS must strengthen several elements needed to have a comprehensive Child Find system. The suit was brought about by 7 families in 2005 "who encountered barriers and delays in securing special education services for which they were eligible".
A judge overseeing the suit ruled last week that DCPS had failed to provide some parents with a timely evaluation, as determined under IDEA. Early Stages staff acknowledged that "at least four patients per day contacted Early Stages 'to report that a Child Find Coordinator had failed to return their calls regarding providing their children with an evaluation or an eligibility screening.'"
The testimony of another DCPS witness, Maxine Freund, a professor at George Washington's Graduate School of Education and Human Development, also illustrated how "leadership turnover and lengthy vacancies in key positions" hindered Early Stages' efforts in becoming a comprehensive child find system.
Poor leadership has most likely limited the development of a tracking system "to determine which children are receiving services and ensure follow-up once children are referred" as well as complete coordination among agencies in Washington, DC involved in providing services to identified children.
The opening of the second Early Stages center is certainly a step in the right direction. Before the opening of the second Early Stages center, 40 percent of the referrals in the Ward 6 Early Stages center were from children in Wards 7 and 8. This high number of referrals is consistent with the most recent census data that illustrates that 40 percent of DC children live in Wards 7 and 8.
Furthermore, children who live in poverty are more at risk for having a developmental delay. While less than 3.1 percent of children who live in Ward 3 live in poverty, over 40 percent of children who live in Ward 7 and about 50 percent of children who live in Ward 8 live in poverty. Early Stages staff believe that at least 12 percent of children in this age group have a disability or a developmental delay.
While the implementation of the Early Stages program has played a role in increasing the identification of preschool-age children with disabilities or developmental delays, DCPS must strengthen its efforts to fill the position vacancies with people who are not only experienced in Child Find, but also have strong leadership skills.
Including strong leaders in management positions and reducing turnover would increase the likelihood of Early Stages developing a culture that supports the aspects of a comprehensive Child Find system, including timely evaluations, communication with families, interagency coordination, and the development of a tracking system.
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