Report on center-based special education programs provides ‘a path to move forward’

Special education consultant Beth Steenwyk meets with Special Education staff during a focus group

As Kent ISD prepares to take over special education programs that serve the county’s most challenged and difficult learners, Superintendent Ron Caniff says a recently-released consultant’s report offers his staff a roadmap for the future.

“This report should be used as a path to move forward, not as a rear-view mirror,” Caniff said of the 20-page summary submitted by consultant Beth Steenwyk. She also is expected to submit individual reports for each of the center-based programs she observed over the past year.

Steenwyk, a nationally recognized expert who began her career in Grand Rapids, concluded that the nine center-based programs that are shifting from being the responsibility of Grand Rapids Public Schools to the regional Kent ISD could benefit from a “shared purpose and vision.”

While some classrooms were highly organized and well-staffed, other classrooms showed “little evidence of any ‘school-like’ structures, Steenwyk said. “Thus we are left with a gap in the continuum for our most needy learners.”

In her report, Steenwyk praised the program’s 400 employees for their “genuine sense of caring and compassion for their students.” However, she said “the current cultures do not foster a mindset of high expectations and student potential.”

The programs serve some 1,350 students who have severe physical impairments and learning disabilities that keep them from attending regular K-12 classrooms. They are designed to provide a learning environment for the students from age 3 to 26.

Steenwyk said five key “pillars” are needed to improve the center programs in the future. They  include:

  • Development of a unifying core mission and a requisite set of guiding principles
  • Alignment of the guiding principles to fundamental and explicit expectations of staff performance and instructional practices
  • Safe, secure and well-maintained learning environments
  • Consistency across all programs in the use and implementation of curriculum aligned to high quality, evidence-based standards with customized professional development for staff
  • Rigorous and purposeful use of continuous school improvement processes

Caniff said he found parts of the report “a bit painful.” But it would be wrong to use the report to find fault or assign blame, he said. As part of a large urban school district, the center programs were not the focal point of Grand Rapids Public Schools in what has become a constantly-changing legal and political environment for public education, he said.

“The staff operating and administering these programs was very dedicated. The report reveals, however, that a thorough review was overdue. These programs have operated under a structure that was created several decades ago in a very different era.

“Our largest school district within the county had long shouldered the responsibility of operating center-based programs for 19 other school districts in the county while also delivering high-quality programs for its own K-12 students.”

Caniff said he is looking forward to getting Steenwyk’s recommendations on each of the individual programs. “I think that’s where the rubber hits the road,” he said.

The consultant was hired in May at the request of the regional superintendents association, with the support of GRPS, to identify areas where improvement is needed after parents of  students and staff at the center-based programs voiced complaints about the system.

Last summer, the Grand Rapids School Board decided to transfer the programs over to Kent ISD. The shift is underway and is scheduled to be complete by July 1.

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So far, Caniff says the transfer process between the organizations has been smooth. Most of the administrators from the Grand Rapids program have been hired by Kent ISD. Most of the incumbent staff and teachers also are being hired, Caniff said. “It’s going well – I think we’re ahead of the game.”

The report, more information, a timeline, FAQs and updates can be found on the Center Program Review pages.

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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