September 25, 2018 10:24:52 AM
Mary Pollitz - [email protected]
Columbus Municipal School District Special Education Department has been found compliant by the Mississippi Department of Education in three formal state complaints filed against the district last year.
However Cheryl Smith, CMSD director of SPED, said she is still waiting on MDE's response to a fourth complaint filed on behalf of all SPED children last year.
MDE found the district non-compliant initially, during an investigation that commenced while Donna Jones was SPED director. CMSD was cited for students not receiving necessary services in a timely manner, if at all.
Smith took the helm in January, following Jones' resignation.
"That they weren't getting (individualized education plans) or they weren't being implemented (was the major complaint)," Smith said during a special-call CMSD board meeting to discuss SPED issues Monday night at Brandon Central Services. "There were a number of issues. We worked really hard with our staff and teachers, and prayerfully we have resolved those issues."
In 2017, MDE began investigating a sample of 62 SPED students after a Columbus resident filed a complaint against the district on behalf of all its SPED students. In March, MDE found 95 percent of those students did not have appropriate IEPs -- which set individual educational goals for students and determines the services needed to obtain those goals -- meaning students were not getting the services they needed for their education.
During Monday night's meeting, the board and audience listened to Smith's update on the SPED program. The drastic change from last year has been a constant flow of communication from the department and parents, Smith said.
"We listen to parents. When they call our office, we call back," Smith said. "We treat people like we want to be treated. We treat children like we want people to treat our children."
In addition to communication issues that existed previously, Smith said parents also complained students weren't receiving their educational services.
"The large complaint was, if a child needed a specific service, that was being denied," Smith said. "We look at each case individually and look at the specific needs for that child. If mobility is an issue, we will solicit the help of a physical therapist. We always do evaluations before we just jump in."
Terri Doumit, a parent of a Columbus High School SPED student, was the only parent to come before the board Monday night. She voiced her concerns about the services her son and other SPED students weren't receiving during numerous special-call meetings last year, but she spoke more positively of the SPED program Monday.
"The reason I'm standing here is not to complain, (but) to let you know that there have been successes," Doumit said. "One thing that has changed, just from my perspective ... one thing that has gotten a little bit better this year is the relationship with the teachers. I think what has made a difference is it's a lot easier to talk to Dr. Smith than it was with the previous administration. It was very hard, very combative all the time and it was very hard to get any results for the children."
Doumit stressed, personally, the changes have primarily concerned communication with the department and her son's IEP. Doumit said her son's IEP didn't make sense to her last year, whereas now it is something she understands and finds suitable. Last year, Doumit was never sure if the services her son needed would be applied, but said she has yet to face that issue this year.
When prompted by CMSD Board President Jason Spears, Smith said her case managers attend IEP meetings to discuss the services each student needs. If a child needs a service, Smith said the department investigates and interviews that child's parents and teachers to decide which service best fits the individual.
"We work together, if there are any IEP meetings where we feel like will be heated or questionable, I will attend those meetings," Smith said.
'A welcome change'
Though Smith said the department is coming into compliance with last year's complaints, that is not the end goal.
Spears asked Smith if the department had everything necessary to, not only be compliant, but to have a successful department. Smith said, although the department has two teacher vacancies and is searching for a psychometrist and psychologist, they have outsourced to consultants for those needs.
Spears said he noticed a quick turnaround from the previous administration in special education.
"I think the progress that's been made, a lot more attention has been paid to communication and openness to the department to foster strong bonds between the parents and students," Spears said. "(there's been) an additional effort to identify students who need services, and I think that was something that was a big change from what we discussed last year."
Spears added communication between parents, students and the department was essential in combating the issues that were presented to the board last year. With Smith, Spears said her transparency was a "welcomed change" from the previous administration.
"I think the biggest difference is the district was actively working together with all parties involved to create a solution to a problem that existed, versus before there was almost a fence trying to hide the problems that existed from the community and the board," Spears said. "That is something with Dr. Smith's leadership and of course, (first-year Superintendent Cherie) Labat coming in and continuing to strengthen the district, those fences have come down and everything is in the open. While there may be problems that exist, we talk about them to address them, and I think that is something that people this evening saw that ... last year didn't feel like there was something we were trying to hold back or hide."