After only about three months on the job, Superintendent Ben Shuldiner said he has identified three “emergency issues” facing students and staff at the Lansing School District this year. The obvious first is the COVID-19 pandemic. The second is a major shortage of bus drivers, he said.
And the third is a backlog of hundreds of written evaluations for the district’s nearly 2,000 special education students — a problem that has brewed for several years and came to a head after the state put the district into corrective action mode in 2020, district and state officials said.
“I’ll try to be brutally honest. The Lansing School District has not served its special education population well, to put it bluntly. For years, there were specific things that were not done — and this was stuff that was just not acceptable,” Shuldiner told the Lansing City Council last month.
The Michigan Department of Education requires public school districts to complete initial evaluations within 30 days for all special education students in need of an individualized education program — or IEP. Those written plans help to tailor instruction for students with learning disabilities, emotional disorders, cognitive challenges and many other impairments.
When Shuldiner arrived in July, at least 158 of those evaluations had not been completed on time for what amounted to 9% of the district’s total population of special education students — pushing the district into what the Department of Education defines as “corrective action” mode.
Spanning all grade levels, those late evaluations could have led to a wide range of state consequences if left unchecked. Under state law, the district could lose authority to operate special education programs altogether if the issues persisted. It could also lead to state and federal funds being withheld or warrant direct intervention from state officials.
A Michigan Department of Education spokesman declined to comment on the magnitude of the special education issues in Lansing this week. A records request showed that three complaints were filed within the last year over late initial evaluations for special education students, triggering two corrective action plan notices to the district in January of both 2020 and 2021.
Beyond state compliance, however, those students without initial evaluations could be left in a state of educational limbo while district officials scramble to write up their specific learning plans.
Without initial evaluations, students are unable to begin coursework within their specific Individual Education Program. And it wasn’t until late last week that district officials finally finished catching up on the backlog.
“If you don’t have enough speech pathologists or physical therapists, then you fall behind,” explained Sergio Keck, deputy superintendent for special populations. “And when you fall behind, the paperwork also falls behind. Then, IEPs aren’t completed on time, and we end up not being able to provide an adequate level of service for students who need these IEPs.”
He added: “Issues turned into more issues. Those turned into bigger issues. It awoke this giant.”
As of last week, however, the school district appears to be sailing toward smoother waters.
All 158 of those late initial evaluations have been completed within the last three months — and it’s the first time that slate of backlogs has been fully wiped clean in years, Keck told City Pulse.
“We opened up a shuttered school and hired a triage unit to just work through the literal hundreds of reports that should’ve been done in the last four or five years,” Shuldiner added, noting that a former school building on Pleasant Grove Road has housed the latest work. “Over the summer, we probably did more reports than in the last two or three years combined.”
To help tackle the issue while keeping staff focused on this year’s learning plans, the district leaned on a team of outside contractors to evaluate special education students for specific learning plans. About 200 three-year evaluations are still in the process of being finished.
Once those evaluations and learning plans are finished, Keck said officials will meet with parents and create a schedule outside of school hours to catch students up on lost time — perhaps before or after regular school hours, on weekends or over holiday breaks.
“The goal for us was to catch up without making the people that are working in the school district do all of that work, plus the work they’re supposed to be doing for this school year,” Keck said. “That can be overwhelming, and we know that COVID-19 has already overworked everyone in the school system. We wanted our staff to give all their effort for this school year.”
District officials couldn’t provide the costs associated with hiring outside expertise to catch up on the paperwork backlog this week. Legislation in July, however, increased per-pupil funding for districts, which provided the Lansing School District with an extra $4 million this school year.
In addition to the stress of the pandemic, Keck also blamed a staffing shortage for the backlog. Fully staffed, the district employs 260 professionals for its special education programming. This week, at least 28 of those positions — which span across all grade levels — are still vacant.
“Special education can be difficult to recruit and have staff working in this area,” Keck added. “It was just an inability to access people, a shortage of staffing and many, many years of poor supervision of this program. It can be really difficult to stay on top of compliance in this area.”
The pandemic also hasn’t helped students stay in tune with classwork, Keck explained.
And in Lansing, the issue has only been exacerbated. State data shows the district maintained a timely initial special education evaluation rate of only about 75.5% for the 2019-‘20 school year — far below the statewide average of all districts, which was about 99.4% during the same year.
As a result, special education students in Lansing also haven’t graduated at the same pace as the rest of the state. The graduation rate for students with IEPs in Lansing was only 41.8% for the 2019-‘20 school year, also below the state average of 64.3%, according to state records.
Still, Keck and his staff are confident that the course can be corrected, particularly under the leadership of a new superintendent like Shuldiner who can stay “laser focused” on solutions.
“The district is working on several measures to shore up instruction and provide additional supports to students as they return from 18 months away from the school,” Keck added.
Shuldiner also told the City Council last month: “Special education is something the district really needs to be working on. That’s why we’re going to be doing a lot of meetings, partnerships, and hiring. My hope is that by Jan. 1, 2022, we’ll be in complete compliance.
“I like to always think that any organization — whatever it is — should really judge itself by how it supports its most disenfranchised kids and at-risk kids. One could make a pretty strong argument that our special education population is that, so we need to judge ourselves by that.”