04 Mar Language Is Barrier to Getting Special Education Services for Hispanic Students in Dallas ISD

March 4, 2017

By: Eva-Marie Ayala
Source: Dallas News

Hispanic students are struggling to get the special education services they need in Dallas ISD because of language barriers and other communication problems, according to the summary of an external district review released Friday.

But consultants found no evidence that the district was purposefully keeping any kids out of special education, said deputy superintendent Ivan Duran.

The district ordered the review amid widespread concerns about special education services in Texas. Federal officials are investigating the state after reports suggested a perceived enrollment cap was leading schools to deny students services.

In Dallas ISD, most of the problems stemmed from limited staffing, language barriers and unclear procedures, the report found.

Parents said adequate translation wasn’t always provided for them to understand their children’s needs or to be able to ask for services. And in some cases, families thought they had to choose between ESL and special education services because it wasn’t made clear to them that their children were entitled to both.

While about 13 percent of students nationwide are enrolled in special education, Texas set a target enrollment of 8.5 percent. Officials said that was intended to ensure students weren’t overidentified for such programs. Historically, minority children — black students in particular — were inappropriately placed in special education, where officials were not always held accountable for their education.

Dallas has had among the lowest special education enrollment rates in the state in recent years. Currently 7.9 percent of students are classified as needing special education, up slightly from 7 percent in 2014. If DISD increased that enrollment to 10 percent, an additional 3,511 students would be served, according to the report.

African-American children in the district continue to be significantly over-represented in special education. While they make up 22.5 percent of the district, black students make up 31.7 percent of the special education population.

Hispanic students have been traditionally under-represented. While 70 percent of the district is Hispanic, such students make up only about 60 percent of special education enrollment.

The report found some improvements for both of those populations. The district has steadily narrowed the over-representation of black students in special education and under-representation of Hispanic students since 2010.

The report found that Limited English Proficient students make up 44 percent of the district but only 35 percent of special education enrollment, a representation gap that’s only gotten wider in recent years.

To fully close those gaps, DISD needs to do a better job identifying children who need services and fix the process so that they can get through the system faster, Duran said.

“We really have to make sure all staff know how students get referred into special education in the first place and clarify that process so everyone knows,” Duran said. “And once kids were put into the queue, so to speak, it was taking too much time for them to get what they needed sometimes.”

Recommendations include hiring more staff to help students, including a leadership position designated for bilingual special education services.

Consultants interviewed parents, teachers, principals and other faculty for the report. However, no former staffers were interviewed, Duran said.

In December, two former Dallas ISD employees told federal officials at an area listening tour that they saw first-hand how the district was intentionally making it difficult for families to get access to special education.

One — a Spanish-speaking school psychologist — said he was told to stop advocating too aggressively for students. He was eventually left out of meetings, which often left parents alone and unable to understand what was happening. The other — a former administrator — said the district seemed more focused on looking good to the state than providing services.

Duran said nothing in the report indicated that staffers were intentionally trying to keep kids out of special education but that there was widespread misunderstanding of the process. He said district officials plan to further investigate where breakdowns are happening.

“We have to refine our referral process and ensure that we’re really looking at the individual students and their needs,” Duran said.

Neither board president Dan Micciche or trustee Miguel Solis had seen the report as of Friday afternoon. Trustees will be briefed on the report on Thursday.

Micciche said that every child, including those in special education, deserves a great education.

“The district needs to do everything possible to ensure that our special ed students receive an excellent education and that appropriate resources are allocated to help achieve this goal,” he said.

Solis said that he would not be shocked to learn about an under-representation of English-language learners.

“Generally speaking, the LEP population is such a diverse and dynamic group that, in many cases, it’s difficult to identify the underlying factors that are holding back a student from success, because it’s difficult enough to help them learn English,” Solis said.

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