Photo: Ben Lambert / Hearst Connecticut Media
TORRINGTON – The Torrington special education program is not meeting federal benchmarks for successfully educating and aiding students, but officials say they are aiming for improvement.
Director of Student Services Le’Tanya Lawrence provided an overview of special education in the city schools this week as she offered a “State of the Union” presentation for the Board of Education.
Lawrence said there were 893 students receiving special education services in the district as of Oct. 1, 2016 – approximately 21.25 percent of the student body. This outstrips the state average of 13.9 percent.
The presentation offered Wednesday was based largely on data drawn from the district’s annual performance report on special education for the 2015-16 school year, compiled as part of an analysis of Connecticut’s efforts to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act.
Torrington was deemed to meet the requirements of IDEA on the whole, according to Lawrence and the performance report. It failed, however, to reach a series of federal benchmarks for success in aspects of special education.
The district did not meet the standard for the percentage of special education students expected to earn high school diplomas within four years – 63.2 percent is the current mark, as compared to a 70 percent expectation – and the drop-out rate, which stands at 17.6 percent compared to a 14 percent expectation.
“That information speaks volumes. It speaks volumes to the fact that we have kids who are not responding to curriculum; we have kids who are not attending school… we have students that, for whatever reason, are just not following us straight through for four years,” said Lawrence. “We as a district, and as a board, have to decide how we are going to respond to those needs.”
The district also did not reach standards for limiting the number of students placed in out-of-district programs; time in early education environments, including in non-segregated classes; and time spent with regular education peers, Lawrence said.
The cost of out-placing students has been a consistent concern during budgeting in recent years, as the group of elected officials struggle with how to allocate resources; 11.17 percent of special education students were out-placed in 2015-16, as compared to the 8.4 percent standard.
“We know that we need to still work on decreasing the number of students enrolled in outplacements. Not preventing them, but really taking a stern (look) at programming,” said Lawrence.
The district is aiming to improve its performance, Lawrence said. To this end, she said it has expanded the continuum of services in the district, including adding to integrated pre-school programming in collaboration with Head Start and life skills classes.
It has also established “the Phoenix Community Based Transition Program,” Lawrence said. This is a pilot program including four students requiring a fifth-year of services, which “(partners) with local businesses to provide functional learning experiences.”
This is expected to save the district approximately $250,000 in the first full year of the program, she said.
Board member Peter Vergaro noted his concern that the cost of out-placement programs is not standardized, and can vary widely while remaining out of the district’s control.
“I’ve been politicking individually to try to get a ‘reasonable and customary’ set, so that you can’t offer sterling-silver plates and charge triple – that there’s one cost,” said Vergaro.
The programs are of differing quality, board ChairwomanFiona Cappabianca said. She said that cost is one factor in decision-making, but so is what is best for students.
Lawrence was hired to become the new director of student services in the Torrington schools in May 2016.
The full annual performance report for the 2015-16 school year in the district is available on the EdSight website offered by the Connecticut Department of Education, and can be accessed at http://edsight.ct.gov/specEdAPR/2015-2016/Torrington.pdf.