Transferring special education centers to Kent ISD makes sense, consultant says

Special education consultant Beth Steenwyk met with staff from center-based special education programs during a recent focus group

Beth Steenwyk, the consultant hired to review the regional Center-based Special Education programs, says it makes sense for Grand Rapids Public Schools to transfer responsibility for these programs to Kent ISD.

Steenwyk says shifting the center programs creates an opportunity for educators to take advantage of the latest research and technology that’s available for special education programs.

The transfer of the center programs to Kent ISD makes sense if one looks at how special education has evolved over the past 45 years, Steenwyk says. (see related SNN story: Leaders begin transition of center programs)  Legislation requiring special education programs was first adopted in Michigan and the U.S. in the early 1970s, she explained.

When state and federal laws first mandated special education for children with developmental disabilities and cognitive impairments, urban districts like Grand Rapids had the most resources to provide those services because of their size and central location, Steenwyk says.

Special education programs and standards have become more complex thanks to civil rights legislation and federal mandates that have established those students as a “protected class.”

Today, urban districts have a greater need to “hyper-focus” on their core educational missions, Steenwyk said. At the same time, growing suburban districts are sending the centers more students with “super-complex” needs, she says.

Most special education students attend schools in their districts. But some students with complex needs, those with severe impairments or complicated medical issues, ages 3 to 26, are enrolled in the centers, which were created specifically to meet their more complex needs. Early childhood and oral deaf programs provide services to children younger than 3 at home.

Most of the buildings containing these programs, like Lincoln Developmental Center or Pine Grove Learning Center, are owned by Kent ISD, and all are currently operated by Grand Rapids Public Schools. The GRPS School Board voted in August to turn over operations of these programs to Kent ISD beginning with the new school year in 2019. These specialized programs serve nearly 1,400 students from throughout Kent County and part of Barry County (according to Kent ISD).

Special education consultant Beth Steenwyk

Listening to Parent and Staff Concerns 

Steenwyk, a Calvin College graduate who began her career at Lincoln Developmental Center 40 years ago, is midway through her review of the center-based programs. Steenwyk is the former deputy director of the Office of Special Education and Early Intervention Services for the Michigan Department of Education. The Mecosta County resident consults with special education programs throughout the U.S.

She was hired in May at the request of the regional superintendents association, with the support of GRPS, after questions were raised by parents of students attending the centers and by staff. (see related SNN story: Let’s review center-based programs) So far, Steenwyk has conducted more than 60 hours of town hall meetings and interviews with parents and staff. She recently finished focus group sessions with smaller groups of parents and staff. She expects to send the district her final report and recommendations in early 2019.

During recent focus group sessions, parents told Steenwyk they are troubled by a lack of communication and inconsistent classroom experiences that sometimes overlook the students’ needs in favor of broad-based program requirements.

“Communications seems to be a really hot topic,” Steenwyk explained. Some of the parents said they wished for greater feedback and communications about their children from staff members. Others complained that staff members talked down to them.

But while some parents complained about a lack of feedback from staff, others praised their child’s teacher, saying they were kept in the loop. One teacher set up a Twitter account that included reports during the day, a parent said.

“They’re kind of all over the board as to how they communicate,” Steenwyk told the parents.

During one focus group with 14 staffers, Steenwyk heard complaints about mandatory professional development requirements imposed by the district that did not meet their classroom needs.

Steenwyk says she plans to personally visit each classroom and provide the ISD with specific recommendations for each program. More information, a timeline, FAQs and updates can be found on the Center Program Review pages.

“There are things going on around this country (in special education) that will stop you dead in your tracks,” says Steenwyk. High-tech companies like Microsoft are focused on special education programs as a new frontier. “There are some really exciting technologies emerging out of this space,” says Steenwyk.

This can be “an opportunity for the county to say, ‘This is who we are.’”

James Harger
James Harger reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor. Read James' full bio.

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