The Kent ISD School Board approved a contract with a consultant to review practices and provide a comprehensive, third-party review of special education center programs.
Beth Steenwyk, who has a lengthy background working in special education, will receive a fee of $35,000 for the first phase of the study with the option to extend the agreement.
Her hiring is the first step in an independent study of center-based programs run by Grand Rapids Public Schools but serving students from all over the county. Superintendents of the 20 local school districts within Kent ISD commissioned the study at the April 26 meeting of the Kent Intermediate Superintendents Association. It will evaluate whether the GRPS center programs are providing best practices and fulfilling quality standards compared with other districts in Michigan and beyond.
Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff said Steenwyk’s extensive professional background and approach to solving problems make her a good choice to lead the study.
“Based on the references we’ve spoken with, and our own interactions with Beth, it is readily apparent that she has a wealth of experience and expertise in the area of special education,” Caniff said by email. “She’s worked with and for state agencies in and outside of Michigan to resolve challenging special education issues. She obviously possesses a great deal of knowledge in the field. More importantly, based on individuals we talked to, she has a great ability to be inclusive with her processes for gathering information and developing solutions.”
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.
Study Follows Criticism
The superintendents’ decision was prompted by continuing criticism of GRPS’ special-ed programs under the leadership of Laura LaMore, the district’s executive director of special education. Some teachers, parents and community members have petitioned the GRPS Board of Education to remove LaMore, director since 2014, and parents have complained at board meetings about treatment of their students.
GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal has defended LaMore’s leadership as in line with changes called for by law and in the district’s Transformation Plan, but Neal supported the hiring of a third-party study. The majority of the school board has backed her up and recently extended her contract through 2021 after giving her a performance review of highly effective. The Grand Rapids Education Association has been critical of the special-education program but said it was not involved in any efforts to remove Neal or recall board members.
Steenwyk will conduct focus groups, including with parents, in June to hear about issues, and then will begin her review in July, with many opportunities for input, according to Caniff. Recommendations are expected before the end of the year.
Steenwyk began her career as a motor development specialist at Lincoln Developmental Center from 1979 to 1982. She has worked as a consultant since 2012 for public education agencies and organizations. From 2007-2012, she was executive director of state projects for the Michigan’s Integrated Improvement Initiatives Office of Special Education and Early Intervention Services. She served as deputy director in the same office from 2002-2007.
She oversaw five school districts as director of special education for the Eastern Service Area of Kalamazoo County from 2000-2003, and was supervisor of special education for Gull Lake Community Schools from 1999-2000.