Reading, PA - October 15: Reading School District Special Education teacher Leslie Esterly works with kindergarten student Levi Wilson, 6, outside in the 700 block of North 8th street in Reading Thursday afternoon October 15, 2020. The Reading School District is conducting school virtually during the coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic, but some of the special education teachers are going to the homes of students to work with them one-on-one outdoors. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images) Special Education Teachers Visit E-learing Students At Home During COVID-19 Outbreak
Reading, PA - October 15: Reading School District Special Education teacher Leslie Esterly works with kindergarten student Levi Wilson, 6, outside in the 700 block of North 8th street in Reading Thursday afternoon October 15, 2020. The Reading School District is conducting school virtually during the coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic, but some of the special education teachers are going to the homes of students to work with them one-on-one outdoors. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Students with Individualized Education Programs were more than 3 times as likely to receive an in-school suspension compared to students outside of the program in Fairfax County Public Schools.

FAIRFAX COUNTY—It’s not everyday that a school board does an investigation into a sensitive topic. But that’s exactly what happened in 2019, when Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) leaders requested a review of the district’s special education programs. 

The division contracted with the American Institutes of Research (AIR) the following year for the review, which sought to:

  • Evaluate the system’s design, structure, and established processes
  • Evaluate the adequacy of human capital resources
  • Analyze the alignment of services with evidence-based practices
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of communication with stakeholders

The Fairfax County Public Schools: Special Education Comprehensive Program Review was released to the public ahead of a school board work session scheduled for Oct. 4. At the meeting, members plan to look over the findings. 

The report not only gave the facts, but also suggested recommendations for actionable, evidence-based changes, with a goal of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of services for FCPS students with disabilities and their families.

If you don’t have time to skim more than 200 pages ahead of the school board briefing, we’ve compiled some quick takeaways from the document.

The Findings

The review spanned the period from 2016 to 2019, stopping short of the pandemic. 

One big takeaway wasn’t a positive statistic: FCPS students with disabilities were disproportionately suspended compared to their peers without disabilities.

The report found that FCPS had a “significant discrepancy” in the rate of suspensions lasting longer than 10 days and expulsions for children utilizing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Those in special education were deemed at higher risk for the punishment compared to non–special education students.

Overall, FCPS students with IEPs were 3.1 times more likely to receive an in-school suspension compared to students outside of the program. 

Significant discrepancies were also discovered for students with IEPs based on race or ethnicity. That means that among students with IEPs, those in some racial-ethnic groups experienced a higher rate of suspensions and expulsions greater than 10 days. 

Based on the report, the overall risk of an FCPS student with an IEP getting an in-school suspension by race or ethnicity compared to peers without an IEP was:

  • 6.3 times higher for Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander students
  • 4.5 times higher for Asian students
  • 4.4 times higher for students of two or more races
  • 3.2 times higher for Black or African American students
  • 3.1 times higher for White students
  • 2.2 times higher for Hispanic students
  • 1.8 times higher for American Indian or Native Alaskan student

The report showed that the overall risk of an FCPS student with an IEP getting an out-of-school suspension based on race or ethnicity compared to peers without an IEP was: 

  • 6.3 times higher for Asian students
  • 5.9 times higher for students of two or more races
  • 4.7 times higher for White students
  • 4.6 times higher for American Indian or Native Alaskan students
  • 3.9 times higher for Black or African American students
  • 3.2 times higher for Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander students
  • 2.9 times higher for Hispanic or Latino students 

For the race or ethnicity concern, the Virginia Department of Education did not find evidence that FCPS policies, practices, or procedures contributed to a significant disproportion in discipline. 

Hearing from Parents

Some parents of students with IEPs and 504 plans—which allow children with special needs, but who don’t want or qualify for special education services, to better access school-based learning experiences—participated in a survey, which showed an overall satisfaction with the quality of FCPS instructional staff.

Some of the parental findings showed that:

  • 87% were satisfied with the quality of teaching staff in their child’s school
  • 85.5% were satisfied with the quality of related services staff
  • 84.7% believed that school staff did a good job delivering the services and/or accommodations written on their child’s IEP or 504 plan

The report also listed three positive comments that parents in a focus group gave:

  • “Thank you for the IEP services provided. My son has benefited tremendously, and I believe he could not have made the progress he has made without the support of his IEP and school teachers.” 
  • “All of the FCPS staff that I have encountered are dedicated to ensuring that my child receives the best learning experience.” 
  • “FCPS teachers and support staff are resourceful, caring, and genuinely interested in educating our children. Thank you.”

Parents also weighed in on the initial referral and evaluation process for their children at four levels: early childhood, elementary, middle, and high. 

Overall, about 80% expressed satisfaction with the ease and timeliness of the process, with rates highest among those with children in early childhood programs and lowest for those with students in high school. 

Others expressed concerns, including that parent involvement seemed to push the process along more quickly and that there appeared to be a lack of consistency in decisions to move forward with the local screening process.

Additional Takeaways

We went through the findings in the executive summary and listed several of the things that caught our attention. This isn’t a comprehensive list, so we encourage reading pages five through eight of the report for further information. 

Pros: 

  • FCPS maintained a consistently lower student-to-teacher ratio in special education than the Virginia state average in recent years
  • The division meets or exceeds Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) performance indicators related to postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities
  • FCPS experienced approximately 90% average annual retention of special education personnel from 2015 to 2019 

Cons: 

  • Novice teachers lacked preparation to adequately support students with disabilities
  • Professional development opportunities related to educating students with disabilities were not sufficiently aligned with staff roles and identified areas of need
  • IEP progress reports did not provide sufficiently detailed, data-based information
  • Inconsistency in the implementation of special education intervention programs, as well as special education services 
  • Communication from the district about special education was inconsistent and difficult to access, including translation services

The Oct. 4 meeting will air live from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on FCPS’ YouTube Channel and locally on Channel 99. If you can’t attend virtually at that time, the work session will be available on the division’s YouTube channel following the broadcast.