The Indian River School District is committed to providing the best support systems and services for students in special education. In late 2015, the district Superintendent along with key administrators recognized an opportunity to grow their special education division in a new way that capitalized on my area of expertise as a newly appointed board member. I had devoted my career to students with disabilities at the community college level and had partnered with many local high schools and state agencies over the course of 18+ years to facilitate services in this area. It was a project that would require a great deal of collaboration between the board and district officials but slated to yield outcomes focused on growth, positivity, and inclusiveness.
The Indian River School District’s Special Education Task Force (SETF) was launched in the Spring of 2016. The purpose of the Task Force was to examine current practices through system transparency to strengthen operations. The process was focused on identifying current systemic challenges, developing a priority framework based on students and families, and increasing effectiveness across all facets of operation for the division. The SETF chose as part of its mission to develop a portfolio that would be presented to the administration, public, and Board of Education at the end of year one of the project to summarize its work and findings to include: highlighting areas of strength and showcasing success, identifying opportunities for improvement with relevant recommendations, and outlining trend areas for the future.
The component that set this project apart from other groups was the establishment of a SETF culture. It was a very new experience for the district to have a Board member working on a project of this scope with teachers, special education administrators, coordinators, and specialists. The project was broad and included steps to identify clear operational practices, guidance for leadership, strategies for success based on industry standards, components of compliance, a focus on students and families as a priority, and an awareness of transparency and accountability. Imbedded within the project was a clear message that the SETF would establish a culture of support and positivity. This message made the difference between resistance and fear from district employees and instead created a collaborative spirit of thoughtful self-examination with an emphasis on celebrating our success along the way.
Once members of the group were chosen, a network of support from various stakeholders was created. This provided an opportunity to educate people on our mission and to solidify that it was not a “gotcha” campaign to identify any one employee or group of employees for bad practices or non-compliance. Quite the contrary, the early months of SETF meetings focused heavily on buildings reporting out their best practices and accomplishments in special education. A platform was developed so that we could collect the success stories for inclusion in the portfolio. This developed a genuine sense of trust in the process and stakeholder buy-in was high. In tandem, it dispelled any myths that there needed to be a divide between the Board of Education and front-line staff. Our common purpose was to work collaboratively to enhance the experience of special education students in the district.
Many other smaller projects were launched under the umbrella of the SETF. Special Education Department Vision and Mission Statements were created that were built on ideas from Special Education Coordinators, a flow chart of the department was developed, and a Strategic Directions and Goals document was created that was driven by administration and content specialists. In addition, work groups were established whereby employees could creatively design outcomes that helped in various way to improve special education services in the district. Teachers and other staff were given an opportunity to submit personal Best Practice and Vision Statements that would be included in the portfolio to highlight their passion for excellence in special education. In addition, A Special Education Week was created to celebrate the diversity of students, to promote respect and awareness, and to recognize special education leaders in the district. The establishment of the Special Education Week became a focal point of the Task Force because it embodied the culture of the project that I felt was so important.
Special Education Week was designed with many components that directly spoke to students with events such as a ‘Spread the Word to End the Word’ campaign, informational displays in buildings on parent-teacher conference nights, daily bulletins and announcements related to the success of people with disabilities in society, and poster contests but it also highlighted and celebrated our own staff through the creation of Special Education Ambassadors. We wanted an opportunity to honor staff members who embraced and promoted a culture of support and success for students with disabilities. Ambassadors would be role models to their colleagues and carry a positive message of inclusiveness. In our inaugural year, 271 staff members nominated 133 of their colleagues and 16 were selected by the Task Force, representing one person for each of our 16 buildings in the district. Nominations were open to special education teachers, support staff, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, librarians, custodians – in essence, anyone who had an impact on special education. Recipients received a lapel pin they could proudly wear that signified their award and a certificate for their offices or classrooms. At the Board meeting where the Ambassadors were recognized, many of the recipients brought their colleagues and family members to celebrate.
The positive culture of the SETF was also evident via the many opportunities for feedback. Integral to the project was hearing the opinion of others outside of the Task Force. I wanted the school community and community at-large to know that I valued their voice. Hence, the establishment of Parent Focus Groups whereby any employee or community member who had an interest in sharing their ideas could attend and give their thoughts about special education directly to me as a Board member. There were no sign-up sheets and participants did not need to identify their name at the meetings because the focus was simply on gathering their ideas. In addition, a SWOT survey was sent out to all employees to anonymously gather their feedback. Hundreds of forms were submitted with many taking the time to write out comments for consideration. A third mechanism was provided for any employees or community members to provide feedback via a Special Education survey. Respondents were encouraged to write any comments that they wanted us to hear about their experiences with special education and ideas for enhancement. From this data, best practices were highlighted, areas in need of strengthening were identified, and trends in special education were recognized.
The Special Education Task Force provided a positive mechanism to facilitate growth in an identified area. The portfolio was presented in the summer of 2017 to the Board and community and provided a summary of four (4) trends areas with recommendations:
- Support and Development for Teachers and Staff
- Program Development
- Utilization of Resources
- Celebrating Success
The recommendations were provided with an element of flexibility so that the Special Education department could implement in ways that captured their creativity and would work best for their system of stakeholders while maintaining accountability to the board and ensuring progress. At the end of the project, the Director of Special Services remarked, “It is often difficult to gather true feedback from a group’s stakeholders. The SETF, through its initiatives, has provided the opportunity for all groups to have a voice. The collection and analysis of data and feedback from the IRSD staff members combined with a platform to explore a vision for the future are ways in which the SETF has provided the greatest level of support. We want to thank Dr. Statler for providing exceptional leadership to this group while fostering a working relationship that is unlike any other within our district.” The Superintendent wrote, “The high level of collaboration between and the SETF and Department of Special Services in developing instructional strategies has enabled our students to demonstrate academic and social growth. Dr. Heather Statler has done an outstanding job as the chairperson of the SETF making sure that all groups including parents, community members, and educators have open dialogue regarding both instruction and compliance. I have had the opportunity to work in the Indian River School District for 36 years. I can honestly say that the work done by the SETF has done more to support our special education students than any other committee in the years past.” It was a new outlook on improving a system via a collaborative and creative culture of positive support with a lens focused on the voice of stakeholders.
Heather M. Statler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the Indian River School Board, Selbyville, Delaware. She is an academic counselor at Delaware Technical Community College who focuses on students with special needs.