Administrator: Political climate, Supreme Court decision create uncertainties in special ed

Star Special Ed Director is a feature designed to introduce you to your colleagues — pupil services administrators from across the country — and shine the light on district and state best practices.

This month, Special Ed Connection® spoke with Adam Leckie, director of exceptional student services for Florence (Ariz) Unified School District. Of Florence’s 9,500 students, 1,400 have IEPs. Leckie has spent nearly 12 years working in education as a paraeducator, special education teacher, special education department chair, special education instructional coach, and director of Exceptional Student Services and was most recently named the assistant superintendent for the upcoming school year. He received the 2015 National Early Career Special Education Administrator Award from the Council of Administrators of Special Education.

In the following Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity, Leckie discusses, among other topics, the district’s investment in technology and the importance of recruiting well-qualified teachers.

Q: What is the greatest challenge facing special education administrators right now?

A: The uncertainty perpetuated in the current political climate, lack of qualified personnel, and inadequate funding continue to present significant challenges. Much of the rhetoric from Washington, D.C., indicates a shift from existing regulatory frameworks and funding mechanisms, which invokes great anxiety about the future of the profession. With the reinterpretation of FAPE to include more than the de minimis (see Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, 69 IDELR 174 (U.S. 2017)), this puts even greater strain on an already taxed system to do more with less.

Q: How are you addressing these challenges?

A: The one benefit of having many constraints and obstacles is it forces you to think outside the box. I have done my best to organize our state special education organizations to continue to advocate for increases in state funding. To fill the teacher vacancy crisis, I often have to work with our HR department on recruiting strategies that include a combination of social media, out-of-state trips, and use of third-party agencies to find teachers willing to come to our state.

Q: Florence USD has said it turned around previous lackluster performance by improving academic and technology programs. Can you explain how special education has been a part of that?

A: About eight years ago the district made the decision to infuse technology into all our educational programs, resulting in one-to-one high schools (every student has a device) and technology-rich elementary and middle school classrooms. Students with exceptional learning needs often benefited the most from these implementation efforts, as content is now much more flexible, accessible, and easily modified. When teachers had a textbook set [in the past] they often had to make multiple copies, provide highlighters, physically modify papers, etc. Now, altered material is available in real time to fit students’ needs.

Q: How are investments in technology helping the district’s special education services?

A: Technology-enhanced curricula offer all students, particularly those with disabilities, the opportunity to access content in a variety of ways based on their individual preferences and learning profiles. When integrated thoughtfully into existing curricular and pedagogical frameworks, technology can reduce many of the pre-existing barriers that prevent students with exceptionalities from accessing the curriculum. For instance, many of our students in high school leverage universal access tools such as text-to-speech to compose assignments or enhanced text in reading to support comprehension. In my opinion, technology has been a tremendously impactful driver of educational equity and true inclusive practice.

Q: What is your district doing to improve postsecondary outcomes for students with special needs?

A: Currently, we are working to vertically articulate transition planning so that students are exposed to career exploration at an early age. Recently, our district completed a project with the Arizona Department of Education and the University of Kentucky to enhance these services and transition planning activities to integrate multiple stakeholders in a more holistic approach. General education peers and community agencies have become critical in this process.

Q: How could the U.S. Education Department help special education services in your district?

A: I think the department could assist in continuing to advocate for full funding of the IDEA from Congress and to provide additional funding options for state and local education agencies. In addition, OSEP can work with states to reduce the regulatory burden that special education compliance has placed on the field. One of the main factors in teacher turnover relates to the incredible documentation framework that surrounds the work teachers do. In my opinion, the IEP has become more of a legal “contract” than an educational plan, one that is continuously ripe for attorneys to scrutinize and leverage against districts. Teachers are not lawyers but are asked to produce a document that has legal implications for students and school districts. I would like to see OSEP and ED work to reduce these extraneous burdens so that teachers can get back to focusing more on instruction.

Kara Arundel covers special education for LRP Publications.

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