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Special ed targets elude most districts

Most Southern Oregon school districts lagged behind state achievement goals in special education report cards released by the Oregon Department of Education earlier this month.

Districts showed a mix of improvements and backslides across various achievement metrics, based on data from the 2016-17 school year.

With an 84% four-year graduation rate in 2017 among students in special education, only Ashland School District exceeded the state's 81% target rate. Most other districts came in more than 20 percentage points below the state target.

Administrators in those districts pointed to growth achieved over a number of years while acknowledging the work ahead.

"There's still improvement to be made," said Ryan Munn, secondary special education coordinator for the Central Point School District. "We'll determine what it is that is working, and areas that we need to improve."

Tania Tong, Medford School District’s director of special education and student services, pointed to a few initiatives in recent years that she said have led to improvements, such as a 30.6% increase in graduation rates since 2013-14.

One is the district's “check and connect” program, which pairs a trained adult mentor with a student with an Individualized Education Plan in a one-on-one arrangement. The intent is to prevent dropouts and help keep kids on track to graduate.

The Medford School District had a 69% four-year graduation rate among its students with Individualized Education Plans in 2017. That rate jumped to 74.4% in 2018, according to ODE data released in January.

Tong said seeing improvement “feels awesome.”

“We still have work to do because we want all of our kids across the stage, but I think what it shows us is the strategic supports are paying off for our students,” she said.

She also highlighted the district’s expansion of its co-teaching method, in which a special education teacher works alongside a general education teacher. This enables students with Individualized Education Plans to remain in general classes with their peers.

That’s another aspect of special education that the state is interested in: the report cards track the percentage of students with IEPs who spent 80% or more of their time in school in regular classes.

In 2016-17, Medford’s rate of 78.1%, Ashland’s 80.1% rate and Eagle Point’s 79.9% rate all exceeded the state’s target, which was 73% or more of students.

The state’s metrics are formed using stakeholder input and feedback from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, according to ODE.

“The Oregon Department of Education is committed to equity and excellence for every learner, and tracking these metrics helps parents, educators and students track what progress we’re making to fulfill our commitment to our students,” said Eric B. Wells, compliance specialist for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in an email.

In Central Point, Munn pointed to other metrics that he thinks tell a fuller story about the effectiveness of student supports, such as the five-year graduation rate. The school district was a few percentage points closer to the state’s target rate there: 66.7% next to an 84% goal.

“I find that actually to be a pretty encouraging number,” Munn said. “I think it speaks to the relationships and hopefully some of the discipline that we’ve helped instill in students so they can finish their diploma and go on to postsecondary education or employment or whatever.”

The report cards also offer information on how students progress after graduation: the state goal was for 72% of students from the four-year cohort to be either enrolled in higher education, involved in other postsecondary education or employed in the year after they left high school.

Districts have to maintain contact with students in that time frame to be able to conduct an interview on their whereabouts and pursuits a year later.

Ashland far exceeded state targets, with 85.7% of its students meeting that benchmark. Its rate of students enrolled in higher education alone was 42.9%.

By comparison, most districts had fewer than 10% of students report being enrolled in higher education.

Medford’s results in this category are flagged to be interpreted with caution, as its response rate was below 50%.

Tong attributed the low response rate to the sheer number of students with which the district is responsible for keeping in contact.

“We try multiple times, but at the same time we don’t want these families or students that have graduated to think that we’re harassing them,” she said.

Tong said that when she first was hired in her current position 12 years ago, the state didn’t issue report cards on achievement among students with disabilities. Looking at its improvements, she said, the district will likely stay the course.

“We definitely still have work to do and we want to continue to improve,” Tong said. “We need to continue to expand on what we are doing that we know works.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.