Report details strengths, recommendations for school division’s exceptional education program

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Report details strengths, recommendations for school division’s exceptional education program

Henrico, Va. Sept. 27, 2018 – An independent report that examined Henrico County Public Schools’ exceptional education program makes 27 recommendations to build on the program’s strengths. The 78-page document, “A Review of Equity and Parent Engagement in Special Education in Henrico County Public Schools,” was commissioned in early 2018 by the school division’s former superintendent, Patrick C. Kinlaw, and John Vithoulkas, Henrico county manager.

The report was presented to the School Board Thursday. The four authors interviewed more than 100 parents, educators, advocates, lawyers and community leaders. They analyzed data from Henrico Schools and compared HCPS to similar school divisions.

The report looked largely at four areas of the division’s exceptional education program: placement and identification of students with disabilities, student discipline, parent and family engagement, and staffing. The report cited things the school division is doing well, while making recommendations for improvements. A number of the report’s suggestions are in line with Henrico Schools’ current initiatives, or are part of improvements the division had undertaken before the review was conducted.

Amy Cashwell, Henrico Schools superintendent, said, “This review is a tremendous step toward building on our successes while also getting independent perspectives on where we can grow. Every school division has room for improvement, and we believe that Henrico is leading the region by not only asking for this review in the first place, but also working with our community to take the next steps together.”

The report’s authors were: Anne Holton, a visiting professor at George Mason University, former Virginia secretary of education and former Virginia first lady; Adai Tefera, an assistant professor at VCU’s School of Education specializing in how educational policies affect equity among students; Melissa Cuba, an evaluation specialist with Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium and a doctoral student in the VCU School of Education, and a former special education and foreign language teacher in Arlington County; and Ashlee Lester, a doctoral student in VCU’s School of Education studying educational psychology.

“The School Board is very grateful to Anne Holton and her team for their extensive review,” said Micky Ogburn, School Board chair representing the Three Chopt District. “As expected, there were many examples of what’s working in our school division. For those items that need more attention we’re happy to share that we have several efforts in place already.”

The review cited as strengths HCPS’ high rate of including students with disabilities in general education classes, and the fact that the division isn’t identifying students disproportionately according to race. It also cited the division’s drop in out-of-school student suspensions, a byproduct of HCPS’ revised Code of Student Conduct and implementation of a number of behavioral support programs. Reviewers said that most HCPS

parents and guardians are satisfied with many aspects of their students’ special education services, and that the school division had dedicated, effective special education teachers whose morale was generally high.

The report also recommended ideas for moving forward. The authors said that the division should consider revamping or closing the Virginia Randolph Education Center, a dedicated school for students with disabilities, and suggested HCPS investigate other options. Among the recommendations regarding discipline, the report said that HCPS should expand its use of data, create a plan that focuses on race and culture, continue to revamp its Code of Student Conduct and investigate alternate solutions. It also suggested Henrico Schools expand staff training and behavioral support programs. In the area of parental and family engagement, the report cited the need to improve communication and trust and suggested the division give parents more access to classrooms, strengthen support resources and use in-house legal counsel when possible to resolve disputes. Finally, in the area of staffing, the report suggested making more use of principals and general education teachers in celebrating the successes of students with disabilities, making instructional assistants full-time employees and focusing on teacher retention and recruitment.

“Our review found that Henrico has made progress in reducing the use of exclusionary discipline in the schools,” Tefera said. “Henrico has also drastically reduced referrals from schools to juvenile court in recent years. But students with disabilities, and particularly students of color with disabilities, continue to be disciplined at a much higher rate than their peers, regardless of gender and economic status. This has negative consequences for educational outcomes, and our report includes a number of concrete recommendations to address the problem.”

Holton added, “There are indications that many parents of students with disabilities in Henrico are reasonably satisfied with their children’s education, but that many parents – particularly those dealing with more complex disabilities – voiced concerns. We made recommendations aimed at enhancing communications and trust. We appreciate the opportunity to have worked with Henrico on this review and hope the recommendations contribute to the county’s efforts to ensure success for all Henrico’s students.”

Read the entire report by going to henricoschools.us and looking under “Hot Topics,” or go directly to https://henricoschools.us/special-education-whats-working-whats-not-how-can-henrico-improve/.

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