By Scott Travis
July 12, 2014
Many special needs students in Broward County must endure long bus rides to schools with large classes and poorly trained teachers, according to a School District-commissioned report.
The 456-page review details numerous weaknesses with the district's Exceptional Student Services program, which serves about 31,000 students with physical, emotional or learning disabilities.
The problems include:
- Special ed student-to-teacher ratios of 19 to 1, compared to 10 to 1 in Miami-Dade County and 13.5 to 1 in Palm Beach County. Broward had the worst ratio of any large district in Florida.
- A big reduction in the number of specialists and technicians in the past year while consultants say millions of dollars went untouched that could have been used for these services.
- Teachers and specialists who lack adequate qualifications or training, leading to high turnover and inferior service to students.
- Longer bus rides for special ed students than other students, putting the district in danger of a lawsuit.
- Students being left out of a program where all fifth graders at certain schools were supposed to get laptops.
The report by Evergreen Solutions of Tallahassee lists 110 ways to improve, including adding and reallocating staff, closer monitoring of budgets and expenses, and looking for transportation efficiencies.
"A lot of these recommendations do not surprise us," said Kathrine Francis, the district's executive director of Exceptional Student Education, although she disputes some conclusions.
Francis said the district commissioned the $200,000 report because there had been no thorough review of the services in 10 years. The district plans to present the findings to the School Board and seek public input at a July 29 workshop.
Some parents have expressed frustration in the past few years as the district has made cuts to services. The county also has a disproportionate share of complaints to the state, although the parents rarely win the cases, the report says.
Nathalie Adams of Tamarac, former chairwoman of the district's Special Ed Advisory Committee, said she was angered to learn the district had $5.5 million left over in the budget last year at the same time it cut 16 ESE positions.
"There have been some very bad decisions made with the budget," she said. "Why are we cutting critical positions if we have extra money?"
Francis said much of that money was earmarked to serve special needs students in private schools, and the district couldn't use it for other purposes. She said the private schools chose not to use all the available money.
Positions in the district had to be eliminated due to a 4.6 percent cut in federal funds, Francis said.
Parents and teachers said they were upset by figures that show Broward has one full-time special ed teacher for every 19 students.
"We definitely believe staffing needs to be improved," said Kalebra Jacobs-Reed, vice president of the Broward Teachers Union and the mother of a special needs student. "Right now we have an insufficient number of trained staff to meet the needs of students with disabilities."
Francis said Broward has many teachers dually certified to teach general and special education, but she's not sure they are being counted in the ratios.
According to the report, "staff reported that teachers or support staff are often hired without the necessary training, experience, or credentials to successfully fulfill the job duties." That "results in poor employee retention and difficulty recruiting potential candidates."
And general education teachers said they are not trained in how to handle special ed kids, many of whom struggle with behavior issues.
"As a teacher, you're happy to serve any student, but you want to feel prepared to offer that student the best education possible," Jacobs-Reed said.
Francis said "we offer training all the time to teachers, but it doesn't seem to be enough," and is developing new strategies to better serve teachers.
Special ed students are not always treated fairly, the report indicates. In August, Broward initiated a program to provide fifth graders at 27 elementary schools with personal laptops. But the computers were not initially provided to special ed classrooms at 15 schools, the report says. The students finally received the computers two months later.
"That's not acceptable. It points to the kind of institutional discrimination I find with the district," said Steve Moyer, whose son attends Cooper City High.
The report also found that 63 percent of buses that served special ed students had runs longer than an hour, compared to 26 percent of regular buses.
"It affects their readiness to learn, and potentially impacts their behavior," the report states. "Additionally, it may place the district in an untenable or indefensible position should students or parents mount a legal challenge."
One reason for this, officials say, is some schools serve a cluster of special ed students from a wider geographical area than a typical neighborhood school. Transportation officials couldn't be reached for comment but said in a statement they are working "to ensure appropriate transportation services are provided."