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Special education: What’s working? What’s not? How can Henrico improve? (Updated August 2019)

In September 2018 the School Board received a report about Henrico County Public Schools’ exceptional education program. You can read the entire report here

How is Henrico Schools addressing the report’s findings?

A committee of school division staff and community members was assembled to look at the report’s findings and make suggestions. The committee was divided into five subcommittees,
each of which is making presentations before the Henrico School Board. What the subcommittees have recommended so far:

On Aug. 8, 2019, the Board heard a presentation that reviewed parent engagement and special education in Henrico Schools.

The subcommittee work outlined in the presentation includes a focus on four major goals: providing comprehensive and effective services to maximize support for students with disabilities; aligning instruction for all students across a viable curriculum; reimagining and revitalizing the Virginia Randolph Education Center; and improving communication with families to make sure they are as engaged as possible.  

On March 28, 2019, the Board heard a presentation about family engagement.

The Subcommittee on Family Engagement recommended improving in three areas, along with steps the school division should consider. The recommendations were: work to improve communication and trust with families of students with disabilities; support and enhance to role of the HCPS Special Education Advisory Committee as a voice for families; and consider adding more peer support for families, such as support groups and staff members to act as special education liaisons. The subcommittee said that adding more peer support systems would enhance the abilities of the Family and Educator Resource Center, as well as school family advocates.

On March 14, 2019, the Board heard a presentation about programming priorities for the Virginia Randolph Education Center. 

VREC provides academic and behavioral education to students with disabilities.

The subcommittee recommended that the division pursue 12 priorities for VREC: a safe and secure environment; programming in social and behavioral skills; strong academic programs; extracurricular programs comparable to comprehensive schools; therapeutic support systems; preparation for life after graduation; staffing that supports the school’s priorities; staff training and certifications; extended-day options; year-round instruction; rebranding and communication that accurately reflects the school; and a curriculum that mirrors comprehensive schools, helps students reach their potential and prepares them for life after graduation.

At the Feb. 28, 2019, work session, the Board heard presentations on special education placement and identification, and on the division’s approach to discipline.

The Subcommittee on Placement and Identification recommended that, in the short term, HCPS: develop an inclusion task force; increase professional development; expand a holistic approach to exceptional education in elementary schools; and expand programming for students with autism at the high school level. Looking ahead, the subcommittee recommended that the school division create need-based specialty centers for students with disabilities, and expand programming for students with emotional disabilities.

The Subcommittee on Discipline said that the division should: require all staff members be trained in behavior-management techniques; collect, analyze and expand data on disciplinary matters; create a disciplinary plan that focuses on race and culture; track and analyze instructional days lost due to expulsions; connect with outside community agencies; increase collaboration among HCPS departments; expand specialized behavioral programs; and consider further amending the Code of Student Conduct to promote more alternatives to suspension and expulsion.

At the Jan. 24, 2019, work session, the Board heard a presentation on special education staffing.

The Subcommittee on Staffing recommended that HCPS: improve exceptional education leadership in schools; increase staff diversity; increase support for teachers; and add opportunities for professional development. The committee also suggested that HCPS improve recruitment; create a comprehensive exceptional education program and policy manual; expand staffing; and make the program more consistent across the school division. Finally, the committee recommended that HCPS convert temporary instructional assistants to full-time positions and create a program to develop more “homegrown” exceptional education teachers from within the division.

Background Information


Why was this report done?

In early 2018, Henrico Schools’ superintendent and Henrico’s county manager commissioned an independent review of the school division’s special education program and policies. The report concentrated particularly on issues of equity. The authors interviewed more than 100 parents, educators, advocates, lawyers and community leaders. They analyzed data from HCPS, and they compared the school division to similar school systems.

Who wrote the report?

Four people reviewed HCPS’ programs and policies:

  • Anne Holton, a visiting professor at George Mason University. Holton has formerly served as Virginia’s secretary of education, a domestic district court judge, a legal aid lawyer serving low-income families, and first lady of Virginia.
  • Adai Tefera, an assistant professor at VCU’s School of Education, with a specialization in how educational policies affect equity among students at the intersections of race, disability, language and other sociocultural differences.
  • 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.
  • Ashlee Lester, a doctoral student in VCU’s School of Education studying educational psychology. Lester focuses on equitable educational opportunities, particularly disciplinary practices, demographics and access to after-school programs. She is a product of HCPS schools.

What did the report find?

The report found many things that Henrico Schools is doing well, and other things where the school division can improve. Many of the report’s 27 recommendations are in line with things that HCPS does now or is considering.

How are Henrico Schools’ leaders responding to the report?

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.”

Micky Ogburn, School Board chair representing the Three Chopt District, said, “The School Board is very grateful to Anne Holton and her team for their extensive review. 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 report adds valuable suggestions and perspective to some things HCPS has already started or completed with regard to exceptional education. These current HCPS initiatives include:

  • A major overhaul of the Code of Student Conduct that is reviewed and revised based on annual discipline data.
  • Implementation of preventative behavioral support programs. These include adding deans of students, social-emotional support services, behavioral learning intervention and support services, and the RESET program (Restoring Ethical Standards Empowering Transformation).
  • Extensive family and community engagement efforts (some of which are specifically targeted to students with disabilities and serving communities that have high populations of students of color and/or those impacted by poverty).
  • Increased collaboration among the departments of Family and Community Engagement, Exceptional Education (including the Special Education Advisory Committee) and Student Support and Disciplinary Review.
  • Revised policies on how police interact with students on campus, and annual events where Henrico Police and HCPS principals can meet and work together.
  • Recurring special education discussions at monthly principals’ meetings and quarterly leadership meetings.
  • A series of ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators on positive strategies for behavioral intervention and support, culturally responsive teaching, trauma-informed care and restorative practices.
  • Increased funds from Title II budgets targeted to staff professional development opportunities. These are in the areas of special education, behavioral and mental health support, equity and restorative practices.

For additional quotes, please see our news release.

What did the report say HCPS does well?

The report looked chiefly at four areas of HCPS’ special education program and identified some of the school division’s key strengths:

In terms of placement and identification, the report found that, based on state guidelines, HCPS isn’t identifying students with disabilities disproportionately according to their race. Compared to similar school divisions, HCPS had the highest rate of inclusion for students with disabilities across racial groups.

In the area of discipline, HCPS’ revision of its Code of Student Conduct is having a big impact, as out-of-school suspensions have declined. Henrico Schools is also applying discipline more proportionally. The number of charges that led to arrests went down, too – by 96 percent from 2014-15 to 2017-18.

In engaging parents and families, the authors and the HCPS Special Education Advisory Committee reported that most HCPS parents and guardians are satisfied with many aspects of their students’ special education services.

In staffing, the report cited Henrico Schools’ many dedicated, effective special education teachers, and said that special education teachers’ satisfaction levels, while containing some warning signs, were generally high.

How did the report say HCPS can improve?

In terms of placement and identification, the report found that, while the numbers did not exceed state guidelines, black students, boys and economically disadvantaged students are still identified at higher rates than their peers. HCPS also placed students in private programs at a higher rate than similar school divisions. The report also found that black students are disproportionately placed at the Virginia Randolph Education Center. The report said that the VREC buildings might not be appropriate for special education instruction and raise some safety issues. The authors also said that the school’s faculty and staff needed better training, and licensing adequate to meet students’ needs. The report also mentioned a number of facilities issues, one of which was a mention of peeling paint at VREC that tested positive for lead in 2016. In 2018, Henrico County Public Schools completed abatement work to remove the lead paint, as well as a number of other facilities improvements, as part of ongoing facilities work funded by the Henrico meals tax.

In the area of discipline, the report said that students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended compared to peers, regardless of economic status. It also found that black students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended compared to non-black students with disabilities. The report also said that the number of HCPS students who missed days of school for out-of-school suspensions was higher than similar school systems. Finally, black students with disabilities were more likely to be suspended for subjective infractions compared to peers.

In engaging parents and families, the authors found that many parents don’t feel included when creating their child’s independent education plan, and felt frustrated about communication. The report said that trust and communication could be improved between parents and their children’s administrators, teachers and instructional aids. The report said that parents and guardians sometimes sought help from advocates and attorneys to navigate the complex process of special education. The authors found that collaboration between the school division and families has been hurt by an atmosphere that has become defensive and adversarial due to the disruptive and intimidating tactics of third parties.

In staffing, the report said that using a model that includes part-time instructional assistants undermines effectiveness. It also said that, because of shortages and turnover, the quality of special education teachers is uneven, especially for students with the greatest needs. The authors said that students would benefit from a more ethnically diverse staff, and that teachers needed more time for planning, collaboration and training. 

What specific steps did the report recommend?

The panel made a number of recommendations about HCPS’ special education programs, but the major ones were in four areas:

Placement and identification of students:

  • Close or revamp the program at the Virginia Randolph Education Center.
  • Explore moving to a comprehensive school setting, setting up a regional program or coming up with a new alternative program.
  • Protect the legacy of the Virginia Randolph Education Center and its dedicated staff.

Discipline of students:

  • Collect and analyze discipline data using more detailed subgroups.
  • Create a plan that focuses on race and culture as a way to reduce exclusionary discipline practices.
  • Further amend the Code of Student Conduct to promote alternative discipline for minor infractions.
  • Mandate training for all staff members in the areas of implicit bias, trauma-informed care, restorative practices, diverse cultures and needs of children with disabilities.
  • Expand and improve behavior programs like BLISS (Behavior Learning Intervention and Support Services).
  • Change procedures to include reviews of more suspensions.

Engagement of parents and guardians:

  • Improve communication and trust.
  • Enact and publicize policies that welcome parents and guardians into special education classrooms.
  • Beef up HCPS’ Family and Educators Resource Center so it can better support families of students with disabilities.
  • Make sure HCPS is using its in-house legal counsel when possible in disputes about students’ individualized education programs.


  • Engage principals and general education teachers in promoting successes of students with disabilities.
  • Make instructional assistants full-time employees.
  • Explore ways to attract and retain strong special education teachers for children most in need, including the “grow-your-own” model from within HCPS.
  • Consider ways to build teacher “pipelines.”
  • Add more opportunities for paid training, planning and collaboration.

Will HCPS make these changes?
What comes next?

Henrico Schools is in the process of considering the recommendations. Among the next moves:

  • Using input from families and the community, a work group led by HCPS leaders will consider the report, and prioritize goals and how to meet them, recognizing that some of the recommendations will be addressed in the near future.
  • The group will make monthly updates to the School Board, starting in November. There will also be joint updates that include the School Board and the Henrico Board of Supervisors, that will include information on what any changes might cost.   
  • The work group will coordinate plans with HCPS’ Equity and Diversity Advisory Committee and Special Education Advisory Committee.

You can read the entire 78-page report here.

For additional questions about the review, please contact Lesley Hughes, assistant superintendent for instructional support, via email at