Enhanced Opportunities for Special Education in Connecticut

Brief from the Chief – Anne Louise Thompson

As we wind down our school year we find ourselves organizing for the change in tasks that invariably comes with the launching of our summer work.  For us, here at the Bureau of Special Education, the expectation of summer tasks comes with the added anticipation of the many new and exciting venues in which we find ourselves involved.

I have mentioned, in the past, the changes that have begun to reshape the Department of Education and the manner in which we do business in education here in Connecticut.  Both Governor Malloy and Commissioner of Education Pryor have openly committed to improving the achievement of all students.  Within that commitment comes an added focus on the Bureau of Special Education and the ways in which we may support and guide school districts toward improving the achievement of students with disabilities.  Certainly, as we move actively and deliberately into this work, we take along with us a very basic premise: students with disabilities can only be truly served by addressing the issues and concerns within an all-encompassing educational system, not by addressing issues and concerns only within the service delivery systems of special education.  This we all know from experience.  Yet we do appreciate that there is something special about special education to which we must also address our efforts.

With that in mind, we fully understand what our summer work, and surely the efforts that will be well underway as we enter back to school in September, will look like.  We find our bureau staff taking seats front and center alongside consultants driving initiatives based in a variety of other Department bureaus.  We find ourselves becoming truly embedded and fully considered in the planning stages of each of the current educational reform initiatives; special education considerations helping to shape the initiative rather than being retrofitted afterward.   Our work, as I expect yours is as well, includes preparing for the staff performance evaluation system, Common Core State Standards implementation and the next generation of assessment online testing.   This is an historic time in education in Connecticut and the Bureau of Special Education is integrally engaged in these initiatives.

A good deal of the work has already begun.  As just one example, the involvement of the bureau of special education in the various aspects of the Department’s Secondary School Reform in Connecticut initiative has been extensive.  As we near the mandated date for roll out of Student Success Plans (SSP) for all Gr.  6-12 students we find that our bureau has been at the table shaping the SSP as well as offering critical professional development presentations and technical assistance to the field.  Our bureau has edited and added resource elements to the Comprehensive Student Support Systems Essential Practices Framework as well as collaborating on addressing the needs of students with disabilities as related to the Capstone Project.  Certainly, as with all initiatives, as each component is operationalized in districts throughout Connecticut, there will be lessons to be learned and adjustments to be made.  However, of essential importance is the understanding that the need for any adjustments will not be brought about because the components were released to the field without significant prior consideration to the impact on the programs of students with disabilities.  No, all students, including students with disabilities, are being considered in a proactive manner, improving the educational benefit of each and every Department initiative.

With regard to the Educational Reform initiative, the BSE is involved in all six of its guiding principles.   Principle One enhances families’ access to high-quality early childhood education opportunities.   Principle Two authorizes the intensive interventions and enables the supports necessary to turn around Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools and districts.  Principle Three expands the availability of high-quality school models, including traditional schools, magnets, charters, and others.  Principle Four unleashes innovation by removing red tape and other barriers to success.  Principle Five ensures that our schools are home to the very best teachers and principals.  Principle Six delivers more resources, targeted to districts with the greatest need.

So, I offer you this challenge.  I challenge you to find even one principle of Connecticut’s Educational Reform package in which the needs and interests of students with disabilities are not in some way represented.  In my review of these principles, I have seen the faces of countless students, students with disabilities, shining out, embedded within each principle’s most basic elements, ready to receive the full consideration they so richly deserve.  Truly, the time is right and the doors have been opened for aggressively moving forward.  Our students deserve nothing less.  Our combined effort will be required as we expand the boundaries of our roles and engage with each other on behalf of students with disabilities.

Finally, the Bureau is looking forward to seeing all of you at our Bureau’s Annual Back to School Meeting on September 19, 2012 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cromwell.  Please make sure to set aside the time to attend this important event.

The Future of Education in Connecticut- What Can it Mean for Students with Disabilities?*

In the recent past we have certainly spent a great deal of time talking about change, whether seasonal, economic, or in some of the state’s top leadership positions. Of course, as we embrace change, we also crave stability and sometimes that stability can come in the simple form of good, solid information about future events. Such is the case with the recent changes in the Governor’s office and office of the Commissioner of Education. And for us in special education, what will this mean, or perhaps the more appropriate question is, what can this mean for students with disabilities and the people who teach and support them?

Commissioner’s Vision

The stage is set for what may be an historic year for education in Connecticut; one that will impact all students, including students with disabilities. Governor Malloy has called for action that is “potent enough to make Connecticut a national leader in narrowing the achievement gap, and comprehensive enough to set the stage for a restoration of Connecticut as a model for creating academic excellence for all.”

Recently, Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, released his proposed plans for the reorganization of the State Department of Education. That reorganization is based on six bold and far-reaching principles offered by Governor Malloy to guide the reorganization efforts:

  • Enhance families’ access to high-quality early childhood education opportunities.
  • Authorize the intensive interventions and enable the supports necessary to turn around Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools and districts.
  • Expand the availability of high-quality school models, including traditional schools, magnets, charters, and others.
  • Unleash innovation by removing red tape and other barriers to success, especially in high-performing schools and districts.
  • Ensure that our schools are home to the very best teachers and principals – working within a fair system that values their skill and effectiveness over seniority and tenure.
  • Deliver more resources, targeted to districts with the greatest need – provided that they embrace key reforms that position our students for success.

Not surprisingly, the Commissioner’s reorganization plan includes a leadership team who will be supported by reorganized divisions.

A Chief Academic Officer will focus on realizing the Governor’s goal of “creating academic excellence for all,” and will work to align the Departments efforts around preparing students for college and careers.

A Chief Talent Officer will implement strategies in pursuit of the Governor’s fifth principle: to develop and attract a first-rate, diverse corps of educators to our classrooms, principals’ offices, and district offices by improving the entire professional experience and human resource system for teachers and leaders.

A Chief Performance Officer will ensure that across multiple indicators, our school districts receive actionable and timely information on student performance – fulfilling the Governor’s charge to use performance-based accountability to drive continuous improvement.

A Chief Turnaround Officer will lead the design and administration of intervention and support strategies in low-performing schools and districts, addressing the Governor’s second principle.

A Chief Operating Officer will be charged with improving the effectiveness, responsiveness, and efficiency of the Department’s programs and services. Our own Division’s Associate Commissioner, Charlene Russell-Tucker, was recently appointed to take on this important role; coordinating and driving cross-divisional priority projects from start to finish.

The Department will continue to be guided in the financial domain by a Chief Financial Officer, who, in addition to the set of traditional responsibilities, will pursue fulfillment of the Governor’s sixth principle – the delivery of additional state resources to districts with the greatest need, provided these districts adopt key reforms for academic achievement.

Addressing the Governor’s first principle, early childhood education opportunities will be enhanced through the work of the Early Childhood Office, hosted by the Department to ensure maximum coordination with our K-12 programs, but a part of the Office of Policy and Management.

So what can this mean for students with disabilities and for those of us that teach and support them?

Anticipated Outcomes

Each of the Governor’s principles and the reorganization of the Department are designed to bring improved results for all children, particularly those students whose educational performances are not commensurate with the outcomes expected of all Connecticut students. Over the past several years, students with disabilities have demonstrated their abilities through increases in performance and graduation rates.  Students, families and professionals all contributed to that success. Yet, we recognize that the achievement scores and graduation rates of students with disabilities in many of our communities continue to lag behind their nondisabled peers and their peers with disabilities in neighboring towns or other states.

We all need to critique our role to see how to improve the instruction and supports we provide to students with disabilities, and the collaborative efforts we offer families to support their children.

What can we do differently? We can create partnerships with families transcending previous efforts of engagement. We can infuse the use of technology throughout instruction and assessment in innovative and creative ways, reflective of the available state of the art. We can design classroom and community learning environments at all age levels that afford greater ease of access to learning and greater applicability for college and career readiness and community living. We can hold each other accountable for successful outcomes. We can be proactive in as well as responsive to public and private partnerships that will enhance our efforts.

To be sure, sweeping change is on the horizon; change targeted at improving academic excellence for all. Each of us need to examine our own role in “… making Connecticut a national leader in narrowing the achievement gap, … a model for creating academic excellence for all”. Ask what can this mean for serving students with disabilities and then decide what is to be your role in that change.

(*The informational body of this article is taken from Commissioner Pryor’s January 18, 2012 memo to the State Board of Education)