City Connects & Special Education

Education Week published an article earlier this week about San Diego public schools and their high Special Education referral rate for English Language Learners (ELLs), which echoes a national trend. The article, “Evaluating ELLs for Special Needs a Challenge,” featured a quote from a program manage in the district’s Special Education department:

“Special Education had become the default intervention,” said Sonia Picos. “Special Education was seen as the place with the answers, without taking into consideration what the long-term implications were going to be for the students.”

The article led with a kindergarten teacher who referred 6 ELL students to Special Education early in the school year. It turns out that for these students, out-of-school factors were the culprit: eyeglasses were needed for some, a hearing aid for another; none were deemed appropriate referrals to special education. This teacher may not have had other options to pursue before making the referral. In a past anonymous surveys of teachers, we heard similar scenarios:

“I think that for years, teachers thought that they had one direction to go in. ‘This child isn’t learning, they have behavioral problems, etc.’ It’s very difficult to look into complex background situations without staffing to help. You really need that third-party person to intervene, ask the hard questions, gather information, and to share that information with the classroom teacher and whoever is appropriate. In the past, all you had was Special Education.”

At City Connects, we work with teachers and school staff to look at the whole child across four domains: academics, social/emotional/behavioral, health, and family. Together, we identify the in- and out-of-school factors impacting students and then match them up to the services most appropriate for their individual strengths and needs. One of our main goals is to broaden options available for supporting students. While Special Education services are clearly the right option for some, we recognize that it should not be the only option for all students. Academic and social development requires a range of prevention, early intervention, and intensive supports, of which Special Education is only one.

The Research

Does the City Connects model of optimized student support impact Special Education referrals? To determine this, our evaluation team examined the accuracy of Special Education referrals, where an “accurate” referral is one that is not deemed “ineligible” and that results in Special Education placements aligned with student learning needs. Special Education referrals are costly, so reducing the number of inappropriate referrals would amount to cost savings. More importantly, appropriate Special Education referrals result in students receiving services that correctly address his or her barriers to learning.

For grades K-5, our analysis showed that City Connects schools are more accurate at referring students who display evidence of mild special needs. Comparison school students never in City Connects who are referred for mild special needs are 22% more likely to be deemed ineligible than similar students in City Connects schools.

In addition, our schools are not missing students who should have been referred to Special Education. Among students who were not referred in grades K-5, former City Connects students in grades 6-12 do not have significantly lower or higher probabilities of being placed into Special Education than comparison students.

Almost all principals interviewed feel that City Connects has changed and improved the Special Education referral process at their school. Both teachers and principals report that we have added beneficial new systems and processes to the referral procedure.

Citation: City Connects annual report (Fall 2009, updated Spring 2010): The Impact of Boston Connects: Summary Report 2008-2009, p. 36-39.

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