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An adviser with expertise in special education is working with the Davenport School District as it aims to correct problems identified by the state.

Sandy Schmitz is helping Davenport meet state-issued deadlines for compliance on several inadequacies identified in a spring audit by the State Department of Education. Along with Patti Pace-Tracy, director of special education for the district, Schmitz gave a presentation this week to the Davenport School Board.

“I will be reporting progress to the Department of Education and the State Board of Education,” Schmitz said. “The state board has asked for a monthly update on how things are going in Davenport.”

"Bottom line," she wrote in an email Thursday: "I am here to help and have the General Supervision Authority of the Iowa Department of Education."

Making progress

The district's work is centering on specific shortcomings that put it in “systemic non-compliance” with federal laws that dictate education of students with disabilities, according to the state's report.

The audit indicated a disproportionate number of students of color were identified for special education services, and a disproportionate number of minority special-education students have been subjected to disciplinary actions, including suspensions and expulsions and the use of seclusion and/or restraints.

Among other actions, the district must reconvene Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings for hundreds of students to determine whether they are owed compensatory education services. Considerable progress was made this summer.

To continue to move toward compliance, Schmitz wrote, she has been: "Providing professional development of all school and AEA personnel, revising district procedures, conducting IEP meetings ..."

So far, progress has impressed her, she said.

"I believe that the district and the MBAEA did an amazing job in rallying resources to make the best use of summer months," she said. "This allowed them to begin working on corrective actions outlined in the Accreditation Report without needing to wait until staff returned in the fall."

With IEP work well underway, she wrote, the district's attention is focused on another pressing matter: "Addressing suspensions of students of color and the over-representation of African American students in those students identified as needing special education services."

Updated findings

Over the summer break, AEA staffers helped conduct re-evaluations for about 600 IEPs. Each review took about 45 minutes, said Kim Hofmann, the AEA’s special education administrator.

Of those IEPs, it was determined that 147 students are entitled to compensatory education. And, from 861 letters sent to parents who may have received inadequate prior notice of their child’s services, nine parents have requested IEP meetings, according to this week's update to the board.

Schmitz and Pace-Tracy reviewed statistics, including suspensions and expulsions by race for students on IEPs during 2015-16. The breakdown for those receiving fewer than 10 days of out-of-school suspensions was: Caucasian, 16 percent; African-American, 40 percent; Hispanic, 23 percent and less than 10 percent for students of multiple races.

“When a student steps out of a class for a disciplinary reason, it’s an in-school suspension,” Superintendent Art Tate explained to the board at the meeting Tuesday. “What we’re asking now is that teachers use techniques to keep students in class and manage behavior.”

Additionally, although confinement and seclusion may occur in other buildings, the only identified confinement rooms in the district are at Keystone Academy, which is a K-12 building for students with behaviorial issues.

Seclusion/restraint of special-education students during the 2017 fall quarter was 21 percent for Caucasian students, 42.4 percent for African-American students, 4.3 percent for Hispanic students and 12.3 percent for multiple-race students.

Since May 21, Schmitz has organized and led several corrective initiatives, including an Accreditation Core Team. She said she's also conducted professional development and routinely reviews progress.

Keeping money in mind

At a meeting last month of the board of directors for the MBAEA, members were updated on efforts by staffers to help Davenport schools manage the fall-out from its special-education audit.

The re-evaluations were ordered to re-determine IEP eligibility.

“We have a lot of re-evaluations to do,” Hofmann told the board. “I don’t like to say the number out loud; it’s so big.”

But compliance hasn’t been as costly as some might expect, she said.

By asking AEA staff to move some of their hours to the summer, the agency kept extra pay to a minimum — $14,200 in total for the summer’s work.

Joe Adam, vice president of the AEA’s board of director, had questions for Hofmann, regarding the handling of the corrective-action plans required by the state.

“Who is in charge of rectifying all these issues?” Adam asked.

“Overall, the goal is to be a partnership,” Hofmann replied.

Some of the identified issues have to be resolved by the district, without the AEA.

For instance, the state's citations against the handling of disciplinary matters among the special education population are to be handled exclusively by the district. This doesn’t mean the district is going it alone, though.

Robin Krueger, an AEA board member, said she is grateful the district is getting help from Schmitz, “making sure Davenport isn’t taking the lead on things they shouldn’t take the lead on.”

Her remarks were not the only ones that reflected a sentiment of caution and/or skepticism by the AEA in dealing with the Davenport district.

But Schmitz this week had high praise for both parties, writing, "Both the MBAEA and the district are working very hard to collaborate in the best interest of all students."

Davenport is the largest district that the Mississippi Bend AEA serves. The AEA provides special-education services to about 50,000 students in 143 buildings in Scott, Clinton and Muscatine counties, along with portions of Cedar, Jackson and Louisa counties.

Special education services account for about 80 percent of the agency’s $33 million budget.

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