Special education at Spokane Public Schools is about to take a transformative step.
In a unanimous vote Wednesday night, the district’s board of directors approved a one-year, renewable cooperative agreement worth up to $1.4 million annually with Excelsior Wellness Center, a nonprofit that will serve several dozen students from fourth through 12th grades.
“This is ambitious, but it is important work,” board member Deana Brower said after a presentation from district staff.
The contract is part of a complete overhaul of a system that serves hundreds of Spokane students with varying needs. Now they will be placed in 11 different programs, based on age and emotional need.
The partnership with Excelsior was supported by several speakers. No one spoke against the program.
“Our parents, a lot of them trust us, but some community partners are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” said Adam Swinyard, the district’s chief academic officer. “We need to deliver, and we need to deliver with Excelsior.”
The contract calls for the district to pay Excelsior up to $22,000 annually per full-time-equivalent student, up to a maximum of 70 FTE.
Since fall 2014, many special-needs students were educated at Eagle Peak School, which is housed in the old Pratt Elementary Building.
The new model is driven partly by a study commissioned by the district with the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative in fall 2017.
The report ended with 20 recommendations. Among the most important were better training of staff in de-escalation techniques, and alternatives to suspensions and restraints.
However, the biggest area of concern was Eagle Peak itself, where parents have complained that overly restrictive disciplinary policies had the effect of punishing students for their own disabilities.
The school also housed students with widely varying needs.
“Sometimes they trigger each other, and it’s not a good conducive learning environment,” Superintendent Shelley Redinger said this week.
The school’s goal is to create “a safe and supportive learning environment for students” and provide academic, behavioral and social/emotional education.
However, Swinyard told the board during a meeting May 22, “We’ve heard that the community is not feeling supportive of Eagle Peak.”
“Too often, kids have been told that ‘If you don’t shape up you’re going to Eagle Peak,’ ” Swinyard said at that same meeting.
“Never again,” he said.
Since then, the district has met with parents and other stakeholders, outlining plans and options that had been formulated during the past year.
Parents will continue to be consulted during the referral process, district staff said Wednesday night.
The district also met with current Eagle Peak staff, took input from Superintendent Redinger’s work group on restorative practices and consulted with its legal counsel on statewide discipline rules.
“We wanted to make sure that we had plenty of time for community input,” Redinger said.
The changes are unrelated to districtwide cuts related to its projected $21.5 million budget deficit. However, rumors about the future of special education erupted as the district issued hundreds of layoff notifications to staff.
Because the district was preoccupied with the implications of the layoffs, in part, meetings with parents were delayed until late May and early June. That in turn led to delays in moving forward with the comprehensive plan, including the contract with Excelsior.
However, Redinger and other officials believe the new intervention model will be a better fit.
“We’re tailoring it to their needs, rather than putting a number of students together with very different needs.” Redinger said.
Referring to the Excelsior contract, Redinger said, “It’s part of a lot of different changes to a lot of programs.”
For next year, those will include the following:
Two separate programs (K-6 and 7-12) for students with Individual Education Plans or 504 plans, an inclusion-focused curriculum at their neighborhood elementary or middle school.
For seventh- and eighth-graders, a Commit Academy pilot program at Glover Middle School that also focuses on inclusion.
For students requiring integrated support, three programs at Excelsior for grades 4-6, 6-8 and 9-12, with “Behavior Goal and Intensive Integrated Support.”
At the MAP Building at North Central High School, the MAP Academy, which serves grades 6-12 “with a mental health diagnosis.”
At Pratt, a Choice Application program known as Launch Academy, which will serve “disengaged” students in grades 8-12.
At the district’s Northeast campus, a Choice Application program known as Pursuit Academy, which serves students in grades 11-12 identified as disengaged with chronic absenteeism.
Also at the Northeast campus, two Choice Application programs: the Flagship Academy (for students in grades 11-12 who are at least one year behind in credits) and the Summit Academy (for students in grades 10-12 who have social and/or emotional learning needs).
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