Springfield Public Schools – BSEA # 07-4675
In Re: Springfield Public Schools & Michael1
This Decision is issued pursuant to M. G. L. c. 71 B and 30A, 20 U. S. C. § 1400 et seq ., 29 U. S. C. § 794, and the regulations promulgated under those statutes. A hearing was held in the above-entitled matter on July 16, 2007, at the offices of Catuogno Court Reporting Services in Springfield, MA. Present for all or part of the proceeding were:
Rev. James Munroe Family Friend
Mary Ann Morris Executive Officer, Pupil Services, Springfield Public Schools
Laura Pashko Educational Team Leader Springfield
Patricia Gray Reading Coach, Springfield Public Schools
Luciano Valles Supervisor, Speech/Language Services, Springfield Public Schools
Ilene Conklin 5 th Grade Teacher–Springfield Public Schools
Trina Montgomery Language-LearningDisabilities Teacher, Springfield Public Schools
Regina Tate Attorney for Springfield Public Schools
Theresa Arbour-Sawyer Advocate for Parent
Lindsay Byrne BSEA\Hearing Officer
The official record of the hearing consists of documents submitted by the School marked-1 through S-35; documents submitted by the Parent marked P-1 through P-R; and approximately five hours of recorded testimony and argument. The parties submitted written closing arguments on July 30, 2007 and the record closed on that date.
Whether the 2007-2008 Individualized Education Plan proposed by Springfield Public Schools calling for Michael’s placement in a substantially separate middle school classroom designed specifically for students with language learning disabilities, is reasonably calculated to provide a free, appropriate public education?
Summary of the Evidence
1. Michael is an eleven year old Springfield resident who will be entering the sixth grade in September 2007. Michael has received special education services through the Springfield Public Schools since he was three years old. He was initially found eligible for special education due to a communication disability. He participated in direct speech-language therapy in an integrated preschool and in mainstream kindergarten, first, and second grades. Beginning in kindergarten the speech language therapist and regular education teacher noted that though he was making slow, but steady progress in oral expressive language Michael had weak phonological skills. (S-30; S-29; S-28; S-25; S-23)
2. A psychoeducational evaluation conducted by Springfield School Psychologist, Dr. Santana, when Michael was an 8 year old 3 rd grade student, found Michael’s learning profile to be consistent with a diagnosis of dyslexia. Dr. Santana reported that results of standardized intelligence testing demonstrated that Michael had average cognitive potential with weaker scores on subtests associated with verbal processing, comprehension and expression. Dr. Santana noted that academic achievement testing placed Michael at the first grade level in reading and at the second grade level in other academic skills, confirming a “verbal processing deficit”. (S-21)
3. The Team convened on April 4, 2005, and determined that Michael had a specific learning disability: dyslexia. The Team developed an IEP calling for the inclusion of a special education teacher in the general 3 rd grade class for 3 hours per day for the remainder of the 2004-2005 school year, along with direct language learning disabilities tutoring three times per week. The IEP also proposed that Michael attend a language learning disabilities summer program. For the 2005-2006 school year, the IEP offered Michael placement and services in a self-contained elementary program designed for students with language learning disabilities. The Parent accepted the 2004-2005 IEP on April 7, 2005. (S-15)
4. During the summer, 2005, however, the Parent changed her mind and revoked acceptance of the self-contained language learning disabilities placement. She requested that Michael remain in an inclusion setting in his home school for the 4 th grade year. Luciano Valles, the Supervisor of Speech/Language Services for Springfield Public Schools, testified that he disagreed with the Parent’s decision to reject the substantially separate LLD program for Michael. He stated that based on his own evaluation of Michael, as well as his participation in Michael’s team meetings, he believed that Michael’s significant delays in reading, writing, and language would be best addressed in an intensive remediation model, rather than inclusion. He predicted that the early targeted intervention available in the Language Learning Disabilities classroom would offer Michael the best hope for successful integration into the mainstream in the upper grades. Since the Parent had rejected that intensive model, Mr. Valles testified, he arranged for supplementary direct individual tutoring in reading and language arts through the Curtis-Blake Center, in order to partially address Michael’s learning needs. (Valles; S-14; S-13)
5. Curtis-Blake tutor, Kimberly McCarthy, wrote that during the 2005-2006 school year Michael demonstrated steady improvement in phonemic awareness. Standardized testing administered in April 2005, and in again in April, 2006, shows no significant improvement in reading skills. At both times, in both 3 rd and 4 th grade, Michael scored at the early second grade level. (S-11; P-E)
6. The Team reconvened on May 1 st , 2006. All Team members, except the Parent, recommended that Michael attend the substantially separate, elementary age, language learning disabilities program at the Glickman School. (S-6) The IEP offered additional reading and language tutoring three times per week, as well as a special education program during the summer. The Parent rejected the substantially separate LLD class and requested that Michael remain in an inclusion setting during the 2006-2007 school year. (S-6; Pashko; Valles)
7. Michael attended an inclusion 5 th grade class at his home school during the 2006-2007 school year. Ilene Conklin, who is dual certified in regular and special education, described the class and Michael’s participation in it. The 5 th grade class had 21 students, 13 of whom had IEPs. In addition to Ms. Conklin there was a full time paraprofessional and a part time special needs teacher assigned to the class. Ms. Conklin testified that Michael was generally friendly and cooperative, but was hesitant when faced with academic demands and was not an independent learner. She observed that Michael was not learning commensurate with his potential in the 5 th grade class because there were insufficient interventions and supports available in the inclusion class. He needed nearly constant teacher attention and direction, and thus was unwittingly disruptive to other students’ learning. According to Ms. Conklin, because Michael’s language skills remained at the primary level (below 3 rd grade) throughout the 5 th grade, regular classroom instruction could not adequately meet his needs for specialized, directed teaching to remediate his deficits and to learn compensatory strategies. The types of accommodations to his disability provided in the 5 th grade such as reading text out loud and scribing written assignments, will not be available in the real world. Ms. Conklin stated that Michael is bright and hard working and can learn higher level reading and writing skills necessary for successful participation in the real world with appropriate instruction. Ms. Conklin also observed that the “pull-outs” from the regular classroom for delivery of related and specialized services were disruptive to Michael’s learning. He was more settled and focused when he remained in one learning setting the entire day. Ms. Conklin testified that the setting and services available in an LLD classroom would more appropriately address Michael’s academic and language needs. Ms. Conklin was unsure, however, whether his social needs could be met in a substantially separate setting. (Conklin; see also S-5, P-D; P-E; P-F; P-A)
8. After meetings held to attempt to address the Parent’s concerns about the proposed 2006-2007, the Team reconvened on December 4, 2006. The Team developed an IEP calling for Michael’s immediate placement in the elementary age language learning disabilities program at the Glickman School. The Parent accepted the proposed December 2006-December 2007 IEP (S-2).
9. Michael began attending the LLD class after the winter holiday break. He attended for 7 days. He became upset after an interaction with a regular education teacher and threatened to harm himself. Neither the Parent nor the language learning disabilities program teacher reported any difficulty with the actual LLD classroom placement or services. The Parent then requested that Michael return to Ms. Conklin’s 5 th grade class. Springfield returned Michael to the 5 th grade inclusion class, but did not resume the supplemental Curtis-Blake tutoring. (Pashko; Parent; S-1; P-O; P-P) After school tutoring was provided independently through the family’s religious community. Ms. Conklin reported that Michael appeared happier and more attentive with fewer interruptions in his school day during the second half of the year. Nevertheless due to the severity of his language disability Michael could not participate in or benefit from the regular 5 th grade instruction, with the exception of math. (Conklin)
10. Zachary Marowitz of Bay State Health conducted a neuropsychological evaluation of Michael on January 19, 2007. His findings were broadly consistent with those reported by Springfield Public School evaluators and teachers and the Curtis-Blake tutors. Using standardized measures of cognitive functioning Dr. Marowitz found Michael to have average cognitive potential with weaker skills in the language domain and stronger performance in areas involving math, reasoning, and visual/motor-visual/spatial skills. He noted that Michael’s significant language weakness affected basic academic skills of reading mechanics and comprehension, as well as oral and written expressive language. He found that Michael’s reading skills clustered at the mid 2 nd grade level, while his math skills were solidly at the 7 th grade level. Dr. Marowitz concluded that Michael had a language based learning disability and that placement in a specialized Language Learning Disability classroom would be appropriate. He recommended individual therapy and adjuvant psychiatric care to address reported symptoms of depression and to ease a transition to a new school setting.
11. The Team met on May 2, 2007, to discuss the results of the neuropsychological evaluation, the parental observations of middle school level Language Learning Disabilities programs, and to plan for the 2007-2008 school year. The Parent indicated that she preferred the LLD program available at the Van Sickle Middle School, though she continued to advocate for an inclusion model for Michael. The Team developed an IEP proposing that Michael be placed in a substantially separate Language Learning Disabilities program at the Van Sickle Middle School. All members of the Team, with the exception of the Parent and the Parent’s advocate, agreed that an LLD classroom would provide Michael with the specialized services he required to make educational progress commensurate with his potential. (S-34; Pashko’ Conklin; P-L)
The Parent rejected the proposed IEP and requested that Michael be
placed in an inclusion classroom at the Forest Park Middle School closer to his home. She testified that Michael was familiar with the Forest Park Middle School and could attend after school programs instead of spending that time in transportation. She believes Michael has made progress in an inclusion setting and does not believe he should be segregated from his social peers. (Parent)
12. Patricia Gray, the Language Learning Disabilities Reading Coach for Springfield’s Middle and High Schools, supervises the delivery of reading services to students placed in substantially separate classroom programs. She accompanied the Parent during her observations of the Middle School LLD programs in the spring, 2007. Ms. Gray testified that students placed in the substantially separate LLD programs typically function more than 2 years below grade level in all languages areas. They receive specialized reading and language interventions in small groups and in 1 to 1 tutorial sessions. The LLD classes spend twice as much time in English Language Arts instruction as regular or inclusion classrooms do. Instruction in other subjects, math, social studies and science, is language based and uses the same strategies and skills taught in the language focused groups in order to promote consistency and generalization of skills. Ms. Gray testified that the decoding, comprehension and written production demands in the regular curriculum increase significantly in middle school. Accommodations and modifications of regular instructional techniques and expectations that may have made the content curriculum accessible to language learning disabled students in elementary school become insufficient to ensure success and integration in the middle school. Tutoring to address language and reading weaknesses is not an adequate substitute for an LLD program because remedial language strategies need to be practiced, reinforced, supported and integrated in all learning settings both to acquire content knowledge and to internalize the remedial/compensatory strategies. As Michael’s language skills are nearly 4 years below the proposed 6 th grade placement, he needs full time specialized interventions in all settings to learn the basic reading and language skills necessary for access to the general curriculum.
Ms. Gray testified that the students in the LLD classes have the same social and behavioral skills as their regular education age peers. According to Ms. Gray the Parent remained concerned that Michael would be socially isolated in a substantially separate classroom. (Gray)
13. Trina Montgomery has been the special education teacher in the Language Learning Disabilities classroom at the Van Sickle Middle School for the past four years. She described the program proposed for Michael for the 2007-2008 school year. In addition to herself, a certified special education teacher, there is one paraprofessional and one speech/language assistant in the classroom full time. There are fourteen students in grades 6, 7, and 8 assigned to the classroom. All the students have been diagnosed with language learning disabilities and are functioning at least 2 years below grade level expectations in language related tasks. Their skills typically fall primarily at the 3 rd grade level. Most excel at math. Though socially the students in the LLD classroom mix well with their regular education age peers, they are less independent in learning and more dependent on adult assistance. The goal of the program is to teach the students the basic academic and language skills and compensatory strategies they need to access the regular curriculum independently. The class follows the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks for content but presents the curriculum at a slower pace with modified language and production requirements. Students are included in mainstream content classes as soon as possible, with the support of the LLD paraprofessional when necessary to reinforce the use of language based strategies, support auditory comprehension techniques, and assist with written language assignments.
Ms. Montgomery explained that the LLD classroom is routine based and skill intensive. The school day begins when the students arrive to individually designed assignments placed in their work folders on their desks. These assignments are typically sight word reading lists. The students then divide into small groups of 3-4 for structured, sequential reading and spelling instruction. The small groups then move into English Language Arts instruction and exercises. After that the speech/language assistant conducts small group instruction and practice while nonparticipating students complete individual assignments.
Ms. Montgomery emphasized that the instruction between groups and “subjects” is coordinated. If one group is working on homonyms, all are working on homonyms in one way or another. If homonyms are introduced at the beginning of the day, each subsequent group will address the concept in some form throughout the day. The students then move to the READ 180 classroom with the paraprofessional. READ 180 is a computer based regular education reading comprehension program. The READ 180 teacher and the paraprofessional customize the program to each student’s level and need. The class then returns to the LLD room for math instruction. Instruction includes direct teaching of math/language, vocabulary and sequencing. Math instruction is delivered in small groups divided by skill level.2 The students participate in mainstream lunch, physical education, “encore” subjects such as art and computers, as well as recess/assemblies, etc. Science and social studies are taught by Ms. Montgomery in the LLD classroom “spiraling” the language techniques learned in language groups into the content presentation. Students who have acquired the necessary language skills go to mainstream science and social studies classes with the paraprofessional. (Montgomery)
Findings and Conclusions
There is no dispute that Michael is a student with special learning needs as defined by 20 U. S. C. § 1401 et seq ., and M. G. L. c. 71B, and is thus entitled to receive a free, appropriate public education. The issue for decision is whether the IEP proposing Michael’s placement in the substantially separate language learning disabilities class at the Van Sickle Middle School is reasonably calculated to enable Michael to make meaningful and effective educational progress in the lease restrictive setting consistent with that goal?3 After careful consideration of all the evidence presented in this matter, and the positions and arguments of both parties, it is my determination that the 2007-2008 Individualized Education Plan developed by Springfield Public Schools will ensure that Michael receives the free, appropriate public education to which he is entitled.
The parties agree that Michael is a young man with an engaging personality, a good attitude toward school, a supportive family and community, many talents and a bright future. They also agree that he has significant language and academic weaknesses that are preventing him from realizing his full potential and causing emotional distress. Michael’s teachers and speech/language therapists have recognized the discrepancy between his potential and desire to achieve and his actual skill level, for many years. Since the spring, 2005, Springfield Team members have consistently recommended that Michael receive more targeted, intensive, comprehensive language based services than are available in an “inclusion” class. Mr. Valles explained that early treatment and remediation of language based learning weaknesses yields the most favorable prognosis for future successful participation in the educational mainstream. Ms. Gray noted that language tutoring as a supplement to an inclusion class, cannot substitute for the comprehensive, integrated, language focused instruction and reinforcement available in a substantially separate program. Perhaps most persuasively Ms. Conklin testified that even with intensive parallel instruction in an inclusion class Michael could not access or participate in the regular grade level curriculum. Her recommendation in support of Michael’s placement in a program that is specially designed to address his language needs at every level in every aspect of the day carries great weight.
Corroborating the observations and recommendations of Springfield School staff is the recent report by Dr. Marowitz, an evaluator not affiliated with Springfield. That he independently identified the same learning characteristics and academic achievement level as Springfield had and that he made the identical recommendations for appropriate educational interventions as Springfield proposed in the 2007-2008 IEP, lends indisputable support to Springfield’s position. There are no credible expert educational recommendations in this record for any educational services, or for any educational placement, for Michael other than that proposed in the 2007-2008 IEP.
The clear preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that Springfield has offered Michael increasing levels of special education intervention and support throughout his primary school education: beginning with integrated speech-language services in Pre-K and kindergarten; to pull-out speech-language services in 1 st and second grade; to adding a special education teacher to the general classroom in 3 rd grade; to adding tutorial services three times weekly in the 4 th grade; and finally, to a full inclusion model with additional speech/language service and language/reading focused tutorials for the 5 th grade. These increasing levels of supplemental assistance in the general education setting have not resulted in effective educational progress. (Conklin) On the contrary, historically Michael’s academic performance has highlighted the severity of his language based disability.
The Parent’s position that Michael has made educational progress in an inclusion model is not supported in this record. In December 2004, when Michael was in the 3 rd grade, academic achievement testing placed his reading skills at the late first to early second grade level. (S-21) In April 2006, when Michael was in an inclusion 4 th grade class, academic achievement testing placed his reading skills at the early second grade level. (S-11) In January 2007, when Michael was in an inclusion 5 th grade class, academic achievement testing placed his reading skills at the early to mid 2 nd grade level. (P-Q) A few months progress in standardized test scores over the course of three school years in not progress commensurate with Michael’s average cognitive potential. More compelling even than test scores was the testimony of Mr. Valles, Ms. Gray and Ms. Conklin that the gap between Michael’s academic skills and those of his non-disabled peers is widening. I am persuaded by the thoughtful testimony of Ms. Conklin that without direct, intensive remediation of basic language skills now, Michael will not have the capacity to participate appropriately in the mainstream of school, work and community as he ages. While the Parent’s desire to keep Michael in the mainstream of his home school alongside family and friends is understandable, it is insufficient to outweigh Michael’s documented need for more specialized educational programming.
I conclude, therefore, that a more comprehensive, self-contained instructional model is currently the least restrictive setting which can offer Michael a chance to make meaningful progress consistent with his educational potential. See: 20
U. S. C. 1412 (5)(A); 34 CFR 300.114 (2)(ii); 603 CMR 28.06 (2)(c)
There is nothing in this record that could reasonably support a finding that continuing an inclusion model of special education service provision in the middle school would provide a meaningful educational benefit to Michael. On the other hand, the specialized services and setting of the Language Learning Disabilities program at the Van Sickle Middle School are consistent with the expert educational testimony and reports of Mr. Valles, Ms. Conklin, Ms. Gray and Dr. Marowitz and are appropriately tailored to address all of Michael’s documented learning needs in the least restrictive setting consistent with that goal.
The 2007-2008 Individualized Education Plan proposed by Springfield is
reasonably calculated to provide a free, appropriate public education to Michael.
August 9, 2007
Lindsay Byrne, Hearing Officer
“Michael” is a pseudonym selected by the Hearing Officer to protect the privacy of the Student in documents available to the public.
Due to Michael’s well developed math skills, the 2007-208 IEP calls for him to participate in a regular 6 th grade math class in the mainstream.
For a comprehensive discussion of the standards for assessing the delivery of a free, appropriate public education see: In Re: Arlington Public Schools , 8 MSER 187 (2002).