Wrentham Public Schools – BSEA #02-2918
In re: Wrentham Public Schools BSEA #02-2918
This decision is rendered pursuant to 20 USC 1400 et seq . (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), 29 USC 794 (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act), MGL chs. 30A (state administrative procedure act) and 71B (state special education law), and the regulations promulgated under said statutes.
A hearing on this matter was held on July 15, 16, and 17, 2002 at the Wrentham Elementary School and at the Bureau of Special Education Appeals. At the request of the parties, the record remained open until August 9, 2002, for receipt of closing arguments.
Persons present for all or part of the proceedings were:
Nancy Borofsky Attorney for Parents and Student
Martha Gavin Consultant to Parents and Student
Hugh Coffman Neuro-psychologist
Judith Vaillancourt Director, Willow Hill School
Leslie Gibbons Special Education Administrator, Wrentham Public Schools
Nicola Favorito Attorney for Wrentham School Committee
Susan Rasapo Special Education teacher, Wrentham Public Schools
Maria Garozzo Speech/Language pathologist, Wrentham Public Schools
Judy Stanford Special Education teacher, Wrentham Public Schools
Thomas Stone Regular Education teacher, Wrentham Public Schools
Sandra Sherwood BSEA Hearing Officer
1. Whether Wrentham Public School’s (Wrentham) 2002 – 2003 IEP calling for inclusion special education services, is reasonably calculated to provide a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive setting; if not,
2. Whether the Willow Hill School (Willow Hill), a Chapter 766-approved private day school, is reasonably calculated to provide a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive setting.
Student has worked to his maximum ability in Wrentham’s fifth grade inclusion program, and it has not provided him the setting in which he can appropriately handle sixth grade material, given his severe language processing disabilities. He requires smaller classes, peers with similar language processing issues, and teacher equipped to provide the specialized teaching necessary to address his language processing deficits. The mainstreamed classes at Wrentham fail to provide such, even with the special education supports.
Student was very successful in Wrentham’s fifth grade inclusion program; he is motivated, he is hard working, his intelligence allows him to thrive in the mainstreamed setting if provided the special education supports and modifications in that setting as well as pull out services. Wrentham is able to provide such. On the other hand, Willow Hill is overly restrictive, and fails to meet his educational needs. The staff is, as a whole, too inexperienced to meet his needs. Further, it includes no speech/language therapist.
STATEMENT OF THE FACTS
1. Student is an eleven-year old boy with above average cognitive abilities, high average reasoning abilities, a longstanding diagnosis of speech/language deficits, language based learning disabilities, motor planning and motor control difficulties, and an auditory processing disorder. (P-4, P-5, P-6, P-45) Although historically a cheerful and enthusiastic child, he exhibited emotional problems resulting from these disabilities, particularly in the fourth grade, including depression and low self-esteem. (P-45) His academic skills are approximately one – one and a half years below grade level, with higher, grade level math skills. (P-45) Ms. Gavin stated that his reading skills are at the 3 rd grade level for independent work, and 4 th grade for instructional purposes. She stated that his writing skills are at the 3 rd grade level, but with lots of help, he can do significantly better. His math skills should be strength for him, although his school performance was poor. (Gavin) Mr. Stone described his reading skills as slightly higher – at the fourth grade for independent reading and fifth grade for instructional purposes. (Stone) Ms. Rasipo described his reading skills as at the 4-5 th grade level with assistance and low fourth grade independently. His writing skills are at the 5-6 th grade level.(Rasipo)
2. Student has attended Wrentham throughout his schooling, receiving special education services since pre-school. (P-4) During the February through May 2001 period of Student’s fourth grade, Wrentham conducted Speech/Language, Occupational Therapy, and Learning assessments, (P-50, P-51), and Parents obtained independent evaluations from Dr. Duffy (neurologist) at Children’s Hospital and Ms. Gavin (P-51, P-53, P-54). Wrentham reported that speech therapy should continue for 30 minutes/ week, and that language support services are not warranted, for he demonstrated average skills. The Occupational Therapist recommended class modifications. The Learning Assessment resulted in recommendations for continuation of the inclusion special education services. (P-49, 50) Dr. Duffy, neurologist at Children’s Hospital, reported that Student’s difficulties are not with the memorization of simple facts or decoding of simple words, “but putting them all together and understanding what is being said.” For instance, he noted that Student could not learn the phrase “33 Anderson Street on Beacon Hill has a green door”, despite many trials. Thus, great difficulty with math word-problems and learning complex facts from history and social studies. “It is very clear to me that this developmental dysphasia is of such a severity that [he] will be markedly hampered in almost all normal classroom settings. His problem is not simple dyslexia, although there may be elements of this, but rather a very profound fundamental difficulty in comprehending complex verbal structures in a timely manner, and recalling what he hears.” He recommended a special education school such as Landmark. (P-51, p-53) Ms. Gavin, Psychoeducational Specialist reported that Student’s academic performance is “vulnerable to the presentation, response, organization and retrieval demands of all tasks. Multidimensional tasks at even a simple level are difficult as [Student] finds integration problematic. Complex language is very confusing for [him], and he struggles to understand and remember much of what he hears and reads.” “In all academic areas, [he] is vulnerable to the density, length, and complexity of embedded language.” “His difficulty in understanding simple directions is beyond the level at which classroom modifications will continue to work, especially given the nature of the middle school classroom.” “He is astute and insightful regarding his struggles. [His] hard work is exhausting and frustrating. …. Increasing demands as the curriculum shifts towards volume and independence will outpace his ability to compensate, learn and produce work. … It is critical that he have a challenging program and not one that merely dilutes material in order to modify presentation.” She recommended a small, cohesive, consistent, integrated language-based program with a solid, lengthy morning academic block, with peers of similar cognitive profiles and language-based disabilities. Further, she recommended language remediation, language therapy 3 times per week, strategy instruction, and homework management system. (P-54)
3. In January of 2002, Wrentham’s TEAM considered these evaluations and developed Student’s fifth/sixth grade 1/11/02 – 12/30/02 IEP. In the regular education setting, the IEP called for language arts and math special education services two hours / day with the special needs teacher/aide, and speech/language services thirty minutes twice in a seven-day cycle. Finally, it called for speech/language pull out services thirty minutes in a seven-day cycle. (P-63) Wrentham considered the teaching styles, personalities, experience of teachers in placing Student in the mainstreamed classes – thus, Mr. Stone for fifth grade. (The same selection criteria will apply in choosing the sixth grade teacher. (Gibbons)) Parents accepted the IEP’s services but rejected the placement, stating that Wrentham cannot provide an appropriate program. (P-63)
4. Student’s fifth grade mainstreamed placement was taught by Mr. Stone in a class of 22 – 23 children. Approximately six of these have language-based and/or other learning disabilities. Student received the pullout speech services, but in addition, starting in January, the speech/language therapist provided small group work in the back of the room. Mr. Stone provided a fair amount of structure – pre-teaching vocabulary, multi-sensory approaches, and he paced his class. He used an FM system 30 % of the time in order to facilitate auditory processing. (Stone) The special education teacher or aide provided the supportive services for language arts and math in the classroom two hours per day. (Stone, Stanford)
5. Student’s fifth grade year was, in many ways, a great success. His teacher reported that with the special education supports, and with his hard work, he produced B’s with the fifth grade curriculum, and that he made gains re self-esteem, and had opportunities to be the leader. According to Mr. Stone, he loves to talk, he learns best using multi-sensory methods, he asks for help, he never lacks an opinion, he is not shy, he is very likeable, and he is exciting and fun loving. The classes are taught as a whole group for the first 10 – 15 minutes, then the students work in groups, or hands on work is done. Modifications are provided for Student. For instance, he does ½ of the math work. He is able to handle grade level work with extra support. The tests are not modified. He is more focused with kinesthetic work; he may daydream a few times a day. (Stone) Written language “is a significant challenge … he gives good effort. He benefits from highly structured assignments, brainstorming with teacher and peers as well as use of graphic organizers”. In reading, “he benefits from previewing activities, discussion and frequent comprehension checks.” His speech therapist reported “that his intelligibility in conversations ranges from fair to good, even in classroom settings.” He did, however, open up more in the 1:1 settings with the speech/language therapist than in the classroom. Further, in the 1:1 setting, he is more easily redirected. (Garozzo) In language arts, he is reported to work best when he is required to present an immediate response after reading a passage. With supports, he worked at a 70% success. By April, his teacher reported that “his ability to retell important facts from a text or answer questions from a passage read is inconsistent. When he is motivated and focused he is able to list/retell 1 – 2 important facts. He continues to benefit from guided reading within small group. Meaning-based instruction is also helpful for him to connect ideas and presented material. He works best when provided with a visual model to complement auditory input.” Higher level/critical thinking questions are most challenging for Student. However, he benefits from group discussion of material presented, and with time to process his ideas and listen to responses by peers he is able to formulate his answers with 70% success. His math success deteriorated in the spring: “his ability to use problem solving strategies is coming along nicely, however it is inconsistent”. When working with a teacher and small group, he can determine the necessary operation to use for solving problems with a 50% – 60% accuracy rate … His ability to use basic facts for such problems is developing with 60 – 65% accuracy. He performs best when problems are broken down into short, sequential steps through guidance by teacher.” (P-61) His fifth grade report card results were written assignments A-; reading skills B-; reading comprehension C-; language mechanics – C+; language application A-. Spelling B; math accuracy in computation B-; understanding math concepts B; math problem solving C; social studies A; science B; penmanship C+. (P-62) Student participated in a play, holding the key role, and was very successful. (Stone)
6. Ms. Gavin observed Student in the spring of his fifth grade class. He appeared quiet, constantly yawning in the large class, as well in the small class. In her opinion, this setting did not provide Student with the degree of specialized teaching, structure, feedback, etc.. The class setting was too large, and the teaching is not geared to the needs of language disabled students. In her opinion, a well-designed inclusion program could be appropriate. However, the current staff would require consultation, there would have to be time allocated for the staff members to meet. The morning classes should be the small group special education language based classes, and then the afternoon inclusion social studies and science could occur. Ms. Gavin acknowledged that she did observe teaching modifications, she did see inclusion teaching and thematic teaching, and student’s interactions were positive. (Gavin)
7. Mother expressed her concerns regarding Student’s fifth grade performance. According to her, Student struggled with his writing; even with the graphic organizers and structure from school, writing was extremely difficulty. Also, he would skim books for book reports, for he could not handle so much material. By mid-year, at the request of the staff, Mother pulled back in her intervention with Student. Ms. Garozzo started working with him at this time. Mother accordingly saw less of his work during the second semester; he had much less homework. However, she did see that he bulleted a document rather than write the essay. Also, he got a 48/100 on a test. Although he is fine socially, Mother heard him call himself stupid. In her opinion, Wrentham responded inadequately to Drs. Duffy’s and Coffman’s reports; the fourth grade IEP provided less than the third grade IEP, and the fifth grade IEP was inadequate. In fact, according to Parents, the TEAM saw him as “an average kid doing average work, and he did not require more help.” Parents are concerned that without more intensive intervention, Student will not sufficiently progress in reading and in using information. They are concerned that Student sees himself as a sports player or actor, not able to progress in academics. Mother acknowledged that the fifth grade staff were very kind to Student and responsive to Mother. (Mother, Father)
8. In May of 2002, Dr. Coffman conducted a re-evaluation. (He had previously evaluated him in 1996 and 2000.) He reported that Student’s WISC scores were 100 verbal, 127 performance, and 113 full scale. He highlighted the 27 point discrepancy between the verbal and performance scores as well as the 32 point discrepancy between the verbal comprehension and perceptual organization scores; such evidences his lower verbal abilities and his “very well developed conceptual abilities and reasoning when language processing and production demands are minimized or eliminated.” (P-78) He further elaborated on the scores, reporting that “the estimated PIQ of 146 on the non-verbal performance sub-tests indicates extraordinary abilities in non-verbal conceptual abilities. [Student] is relying on these extraordinary skills to compensate for his language and verbal memory disabilities.” In his opinion, this dramatic split between his verbal and non-verbal abilities provides an accurate description of his intelligence and his language disorder. He surmised that although he made one year’s progress in reading (still two years below grade level), he would not be able to keep up with this, as the curriculum shifts to a more language dense environment. “Language length, density, complexity and pace will outstrip [Student’s] ability to keep up and to compensate as he has been doing.” Dr. Coffman also expressed concern that with the increasingly difficult curriculum, Student’s earlier depression would return. He recommended that Student be placed in a program designed specifically for students with at least average intellectual abilities and who also have moderately severe language based learning disabilities. (P-60) In his testimony, Dr. Coffman emphasized that his conclusions as to Student’s educational disabilities and needs, have remained the same. He described Student as having difficulties in reading, writing, listening, and expressing orally. He has difficulty retaining information long enough to use it. He surmises that his ability to process language will decrease, as it becomes more complex and lengthy. Further, he described Student’s expressive language as disorganized: he is very talkative, but important information is lost in irrelevant information. Further, his poor speech interferes with his ability to communicate. He recognized that Student’s emotional condition improved during his 5 th grade year, however, he was concerned that the increased complexity of the 6 th grade work would precipitate a deterioration of his emotional status, and he may lose his enthusiasm for learning. This in fact occurred during the testing, when the more difficult reading passages resulted in a decrease in his energy. He also recognized that Student has improved his academic skills in fifth grade, and attributes this to his persistence and his intellectual abilities, but is concerned that this progress cannot continue with the more complex 6 th grade work.
9. In his testimony, Dr. Coffman reinforced his recommendation for small group setting, emphasizing Student’s slow speed of processing, his need for clarification, his need for a quiet setting with little distraction, and his auditory processing disorder. In his opinion, Student requires specialized instruction to circumvent the language disorder – modified language, broken into smaller units, at a slower rate. He requires monitoring of his comprehension and requires help in expressing his thoughts. Finally, he would benefit from being with students similar to him, in order for him to accept his disabilities, and take pride in his strengths. Dr. Coffman recommended Willow Hill as offering an appropriate educational setting. (He bases his opinion on his having evaluated five – ten students attending Willow Hill.) According to him, the teachers have expertise with children with speech/language deficits, and the classes have appropriately eight students, all who have average to above-average cognitive skills. If Willow Hill does not have a speech/language therapist, it must be provided.(Coffman)
10. Wrentham’s sixth grade program is similar to the fifth grade. It will include coordination between the speech/language therapist, the special education teacher, and the regular education teacher, in order to ensure a coordinated curriculum as well as consistency in teaching methodologies. Weekly meetings will be held, as well as daily contact. Further, the special education teacher will mentor the regular education teachers. The special education teacher, not the aide, will provide the inclusion work two hours / day. (Rasipo, Garozzo) As an offer of compromise, Wrentham offered to increase his in-class speech/language support to 30 minutes daily, and to provide his small group special needs services outside of the classroom as opposed to in-class. (P66). The selection of the regular education teacher will be based in part, on consideration of the teacher’s experience with inclusion teaching, teaching style, and his/her ability to provide a supportive class environment. (Gibbons)
11. Parents assert that the proposed sixth grade placement cannot meet Student’s educational needs. They applied to several schools, but were turned down by the Carroll School as well as by St. Andrew’s School in Rhode Island. The Carroll School stated that his language needs are broader in scope than their school can provide, and his difficulties in comprehension and memory, combined with low verbal conceptualization would make him difficult to be grouped. St. Andrews stated that their program would not be suitable to meet his needs. Parents applied to Willow Hill and Student was deemed appropriate for their program. According to Mother, Student is reluctant to change schools, to leave the familiar, but he understands the benefit of such a change; he will be O.K. in either setting. (Mother, P-68) Wrentham asserts that Willow Hill cannot provide for Student’s educational needs for several reasons. According to Wrentham, the teachers lack sufficient experience, only two staff are special education certified, and there is no speech/language therapist on staff to work with Student as well as with the teachers. (Gibbons)
12. Willow Hill is a Chapter 766 approved day school for students with average to above-average cognitive skills, with language based learning disabilities, non-verbal disabilities, attentional disabilities, and self-esteem problems. The school serves grades 6 – 12. The classes have no more than eight students; five of the eight in the sixth/seventh grade class have language-based learning disabilities, and have reading/math skills at the 4-6 th grade, and slightly lower writing skills. Many students share self-esteem issues. Daily classes are offered in social studies, science, math, literature, composition; art and drama two times per week, and tutorials three to four times per week. A “transitional planning” class taught by a social worker, meets weekly, focusing on self-esteem, self-advocacy, etc. The teachers have up to two years experience; two of the teachers (literature and science) have special education certification and have taught for a year; the others have a regular education certification (or pending certification); the coordinator of tutorials has six years experience and is special education certified; the Director has a masters in special education and extensive experience as a special educator. There is no speech/language therapist on staff, although such can be contracted in. Several of the staff have received the two-day Wilson program training, Project Read Framing Your Thoughts, The Power Writing Program and Linda Moot, and the Lips Program. (Vaillancourt)
FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS
I find that Wrentham’s January of 2002 – December of 2002 IEP is reasonably calculated to provide Student with a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive setting. Student is clearly an intelligent, motivated child whose language-based disabilities interfere with his learning. Dr. Coffman and Ms. Gavin described these difficulties in detail; Mr. Stone, Ms. Rasapo, Ms. Garozzo in fact, agreed with these descriptions regarding his language processing deficits. Dr. Coffman and Ms. Gavin described in detail the nature of support necessary for him to remediate and to keep up with the sixth grade curriculum. Again, Mr. Stone, Ms. Rasapo and Ms. Garozzo agreed with many of the recommended interventions. To a certain extent, the disagreement revolves around a rather amorphous factor – the increasing complexity of the subject matter and the language as Student progresses through his schooling. Drs. Duffy and Coffman and Ms. Gavin all emphasized that it is this complexity that causes Student such difficulty. It is this concern that leads them to recommend small classes, peers similar to him, and language based teaching methodologies designed for such students. I find, however, the concern was addressed in Wrentham’s fifth grade inclusion program. It appropriately addressed Student’s educational needs, given the complexity of the fifth grade curriculum/language. Mr. Stone was persuasive that the fifth grade staff were able to provide the services necessary for him to successfully handle the fifth grade curriculum. Mr. Stone’s detailed testimony of his work and of Student’s performance, reflects his excellent awareness of Student’s needs and of Student’s academic successes. He made it clear that Student was required to take the same tests as did the other students, and he was successful. Student’s report card reflected this. It is true that this success may have required Student’s hard work, his cognitive abilities, Mr. Stone’s teaching, and the special education supports. However, the fact is, he was successful, as evidenced by his grades, his progress reports, many of his test scores, and his ongoing active engagement in learning with his regular education peers.
The unanswered question is whether that inclusion program can address his needs, given the complexity of the sixth grade curriculum/language. I find that it can. With the additional speech/language services, and with the assurance that the inclusion services will be provided by an experienced special education teacher, not the aide – the fifth grade special education teacher was significantly less experienced, and the aide provided a significant amount of the teaching -, Wrentham’s proposed sixth grade inclusion program appropriately addresses the more complex curriculum/language. Ms. Rasapo’s opinion is given significant weight in finding Wrentham’s sixth grade program to be appropriate for Student. She is an experienced special education teacher, both at Wrentham, and at a private school for dyslexic students. She is in fact the sixth grade special education teacher; she has worked, and will be working, with the sixth grade regular education staff as well as the speech/language therapist. She is versed in the complexity of the sixth grade material. She has taught Student in small group settings during the 2001 and 2002 summers as well as last year’s MCAS course; she expressed an attentive knowledge of Student’s learning style, and she has read Dr. Coffman’s and Ms. Gavin’s reports regarding Student. Given this knowledge, her opinion is credited that Wrentham’s sixth grade program can meet his needs. Ms. Garozzo’s opinion is also given significant weight. She has extensive experience providing speech/language services to 4 th – 6 th grade students; she has worked with the sixth grade staff, and therefore has an understanding of the sixth grade program, and she has worked extensively with Student in the regular education setting as well as in pull-out settings. She agrees with Dr. Coffman’s and Ms. Gavin’s assessment of Student’s language processing deficits, and recognizes that the sixth grade curriculum will indeed be more difficult for Student, such that he will require more intensive supports. With this knowledge, she expressed confidence in the appropriateness of Wrentham’s sixth grade program for Student, and her opinion is credited. (Garozzo)
The opinions of Ms. Garozzo and Ms. Rasapo are supported not only by the evidence of Student’s fifth grade success, but also by Student’s own profile; he is an intelligent, inquisitive, hard working, social, active participant at school. He has no problem self-advocating in class. Although somewhat below grade level, his academic skills provide him a sufficient knowledge base to allow him to succeed in the regular education setting. These qualities all support Ms. Garozzo’s and Rasapo’s opinions that Student can indeed succeed in Wrentham’s inclusion program, and benefit from his learning with his regular education peers.
This is not to ignore the fact that Student has significant language processing deficits, as described by Dr. Coffman and Ms. Gavin. There was little evidence to contradict their descriptions. However, acknowledging his deficits need not equate to a finding that he requires, at this time, a specialized school. Rather, I find that their recommendations can be implemented in the inclusion setting. Neither was persuasive that they could not. They stated that he requires the smaller grouping in order to allow for language processing time, for monitoring of his comprehension, etc. Further, the smaller classes, they say, will create quieter, less distracting settings. I am persuaded by Mr. Stone and Ms. Rasapo that, with close coordination between the regular education teacher, Ms. Rasapo, and Ms. Garozzo, Wrentham can provide the smaller grouping as needed, can provide sufficient monitoring of comprehension, and can provide sufficient time for language processing, even in the larger groups. Further, I note that the teachers routinely use small group work interspersed throughout the day. (Stone) Finally, I note that the teachers use FM systems to help with noise distraction. (Stone) I am persuaded that Wrentham was successful in Student’s fifth grade, and will succeed in Student’s sixth grade. Having said this, it should be emphasized that Dr. Coffman’s and Ms. Gavin’s concerns do support a conclusion that, as the content and language of the sixth grade curriculum become more complex, the Wrentham staff must closely monitor and respond to Student’s academic progress, his ability to thrive in the regular education setting, and his emotional status.
I am mindful of Parents’ doubts as to whether Student can thrive at Wrentham. They witnessed his great difficulty with schoolwork during the first semester. (He received more assistance with his homework in the second semester. (Stone)) They witnessed his questioning his intelligence and his ability to achieve academically. (Mother, Father) The facts, however, do not support their conclusion that he would do better at Willow Hill. First, Mr. Stone was persuasive that the educational experience was, on the whole, a positive, reinforcing experience. He clearly was engaged in the class work, participated fully, and had opportunities to be a leader. He did not evidence a decline in his interest or efforts in his academic pursuits. Rather, when provided the many supports from Mr. Stone and the special needs staff, Student was and is an eager, inquisitive, successful learner. (Stone, P-62)
I find that, given the appropriateness of Wrentham’s program, Willow Hill’s program is overly restrictive. I further note that just as there may be concerns regarding Wrentham’s ability to address Student’s needs in the large regular education class setting with regular education peers, Willow Hill’s staffing raises questions as to whether Student’s individualized needs could be met there. First, there is no speech/language therapist on staff, and thus, the intensity of any language-based services must be questioned. Second, although the tutoring supervisor and the Director of the school possess extensive training and experience, most of the staff-persons have little teaching experience, and few have special education training. Ms. Gavin recognized these shortcomings, but opined that, having to choose between the more extensive expertise versus the smaller classes with similar peers, the latter is more important for Student. (Gavin) If Student were not able to be successful in the inclusion setting, Ms. Gavin may be persuasive. However, given the evidence regarding Student’s fifth grade performance in the inclusion setting, given the extensive expertise of Wrentham’s sixth grade staff, and given Wrentham’s persuasive testimony that the staff can provide for his needs in the sixth grade inclusion setting, I respectfully disagree.
Wrentham shall amend Student’s January – December, 2002 IEP, to reflect that the special education services will be provided by the special education teacher, not the aide, that the speech/language services will be provided daily, and that the small group speech/language services will be provided in the pull-out rather than in-class setting.
By the Hearing Officer,
Sandra W. Sherwood
Date: September 4, 2002