For decades, Grand Rapids Public Schools have been a national leader in providing special-education services to students throughout Kent County. In light of recent criticisms by teachers and parents, however, it’s time to take a thorough look at how those services are delivered and by whom they are governed.
So say superintendents of the 20 local school districts within Kent ISD, who have called for a study of center-based programs run by GRPS but serving students from all those districts. Announced earlier this week, the study will bring in an outside consultant to evaluate whether the GRPS center programs are providing best practices and fulfilling quality standards compared with other districts in Michigan and beyond.
“All of us want the same thing, which is to provide high-quality programs for the children we serve,” said Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff. “So let’s conduct this review and find out where we stand and go forward from there.”
The study was commissioned at the April 26 meeting of the Kent Intermediate Superintendents Association. Caniff said he expects an individual consultant or firm to be hired within days to conduct the Kent ISD-funded review. He hopes for preliminary findings within three or four months and final implementation in 18 months or longer.
The study was approved with the full support of GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, who said it ‘sends a strong message to our stakeholders that we are listening, we are sensitive to all the concerns raised, and we want to make sure we are doing right by kids.’
Although he has expressed strong support for the GRPS center programs, Caniff said superintendents have a responsibility to listen to the persistent complaints about the special-education program and its leadership.
“We owe it to the parents and to the staff and to all parties to say, ‘If there are concerns, well, let’s look at it.’ Then we’ll use that as a measuring stick of where we need to get better.”
Public Criticism Continues
At issue are the 11 programs GRPS operates for about 1,200 Kent County students with a range of disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder and physical and emotional impairments. Examples include the oral deaf program at Ken-O-Sha Elementary School, the Keno-O-Sha Early Childhood Center, Lincoln Developmental Center and Pine Grove Learning Center.
Kent ISD owns most of the facilities in which the programs operate, and recently authorized over $10 million in improvements to the Lincoln campus.
The superintendents’ decision was prompted by continuing criticism of GRPS’ special education program under the leadership of Laura LaMore, the district’s executive director of special education. Hundreds of teachers, parents and community members petitioned the GRPS Board of Education Feb. 22 to remove LaMore, director since 2014, and parents have come to board meetings complaining about the treatment of their students.
The petition to the GRPS school board listed several allegations, including: students with disabilities being placed inappropriately in classrooms without special-education certified teachers; violent and disruptive behavior by some students, injuring staff and endangering classmates; students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) being improperly processed and altered; turning away students who qualify for services; and chronic understaffing. The complaints are about GRPS special education generally, which serves about 4,000 students, not just the center-based programs being reviewed by the study.
The long-festering complaints were again aired in a Feb. 28 press conference by leaders of the Grand Rapids Education Association and the Michigan Education Association and the parent of a special-education student. GREA President Mary Bouwense charges LaMore with bullying tactics and a top-down management style that has pushed high-quality staff into other districts or agencies.
However, in a press conference the same day, GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal defended LaMore’s leadership, and said problems critics cite are being or have been addressed. Many changes drawing criticism were mandated by state and federal laws requiring least restrictive environments for students with disabilities, Neal said.
The center program study arose from Kent ISD superintendents’ regular monthly meeting. In a press release, Neal said ordering the study “sends a strong message to our stakeholders that we are listening, we are sensitive to all the concerns raised, and we want to make sure we are doing right by kids.”
Bouwense, a former GRPS special-education teacher, called the Kent ISD review a “fabulous” step. “Hopefully out of all of this, there will be better services for the kids, better understanding on the part of the staff, and an ability to feel valued and have a voice,” she said.
Greg Pratt, superintendent of Lowell Public Schools, is the chair of the superintendents’ special education committee. He said study results will be “a good blueprint” for superintendents to guide future work.
“The dynamics of serving special education students have changed over the years, especially in the 14 years I’ve been here,” he said. “This will give us the building blocks to have those conversations of where to take those programs.”
While another study commissioned by GRPS primarily examined the legal compliance of district programs, this one aims to ensure the center programs are following current best practices in special education, Caniff said. Input will be sought from teachers, parents and experts in the field, he said.
“It’s a student-centered approach: What is in the best interest of the students receiving these services, and their families, and where does that take us?” he said. “That’s the underlying objective.”
The study will not evaluate LaMore’s leadership specifically, although concerns about that may be raised from those consulted, he added: “We’re looking at program issues and governance … not personalities or individuals.”
The review will, however, evaluate whether the center programs should be governed solely by GRPS, Caniff said.
“It’s unfair in my view that this has fallen entirely on Grand Rapids. It serves students from throughout the entire county. There’s a responsibility from all 20 districts to have greater input and/or provide direction for these programs.”
Although GRPS has provided high quality programs historically, the time is right to re-evaluate what’s best for students, Caniff said.
“This is a model that’s been in place for decades and decades, and it’s worked very well over time,” he said. “But times have changed, and accountability models have changed in terms of state requirements. (Is) our governance still the most effective or best practice model?
“If changes need to be made, let’s do it.”
Morgan Jarema contributed to this story