Specializing in special education

Private company provides staff, helps schools comply with regulations

Arica Thornton and Susan Howell
Fifth-grade student Arica Thornton works with teacher Susan Howell in the resource room at Detroit Community Elementary School in Detroit. Howell is an employee of Total Education Solutions, a private firm that provides staffing and compliance services to school districts.

Federal law guarantees children with disabilities a "free and appropriate" public education. Not only do public schools have to provide that education, they also have to document their work.

Total Education Solutions of Royal Oak was established to help public school academies in Michigan do both, and now traditional public schools are beginning to hire the specialty firm as well, according to its Michigan manager.

"We were funded on the premise that we were going to work with charter schools," Lynne Porter, TES regional manager, told Michigan Education Report in a telephone interview.

A national company headquartered in California, Total Education Solutions works under contract with school districts to provide a wide range of special education services. On the administrative side, the company helps districts comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and with Michigan's own special education rules, a task that ranges from filling out mandatory reports to adopting local policies to recording and tracking student data.

"An Individualized Education Plan is a legal document. Are you checking that box but not providing that service?" Porter said, repeating one of many questions she often asks school administrators.

On the instructional and service side, the company provides schools with licensed and credentialed special education classroom teachers and specialists, as well as therapists and counselors. It also will serve as a liaison between a local school district and its intermediate district.

While many school districts can and do run their own special education programs, others think it makes sense to contract with specialists to provide services. That was especially true among charter schools early in Michigan's movement toward more parental choice in education, Porter said.

A longtime Michigan educator, Porter has worked as a teacher at the Beekman Center for students with special needs in Lansing, as an elementary school principal and as part of the start-up team at four public charter schools in Michigan.

A candid report on special education published in 2003 by the Michigan Association of Public School Academies Task Force on Special Education acknowledged that some new charter schools didn't anticipate the work involved in navigating the special education bureaucracy.

One mistake that some school districts make is to ask a classroom teacher to also handle the administrative side of special education. Porter believes that combination is usually "penny wise and pound foolish."

Consider that the federal regulations on special education alone run to 300-plus pages in the Federal Register, and Michigan's own administrative rule manual runs to 150 pages.

"In the early years, we attempted to take care of our special education needs ourselves," Superintendent Bart Eddy told Michigan Education Report. Eddy is head of  Detroit Community Schools, a 1,000-student K-12 operation. Unlike many charter schools, Detroit Community began as a high school and then expanded into elementary programming.

About six years ago the self-managed school district contracted with TES to provide one individual to work with special education children and another to work on administration and compliance, Eddy said. Today it contracts for several teachers at the elementary and high school levels and also for on-site supervisors, he said.

Heart Academy in Harper Woods and Michigan Health Academy in Detroit also have worked with TES for about six years.

When the public charter high schools were first established, "We did not have the resources to provide the (special education) support services we needed," Cheryl Herba told Michigan Education Report. Herba is president and CEO of Synergy Training Solutions Inc., the education service provider that manages both schools. She also is chief administrative officer of each school.

Originally, the schools contracted with TES for resource room teachers and other services; today they hire their own teachers but continue to contract for services like speech therapy and psychological assessments, she said.

"Basically, because we're small, to hire these individuals would be cost prohibitive," Herba said.

Many public schools see financial benefits in contracting for services, Porter said. One benefit is that the contractor handles payroll, payroll taxes, benefits and unemployment compensation for the employee, rather than the school. Another is that the school district spends less time recruiting, interviewing and doing background checks on candidates.

While it might be difficult for a small charter school to recruit a speech pathologist for a one-day-a-week position, Porter said as an example, TES could offer that same pathologist a full-time job by assigning him or her to several schools.

Heart and Health academies also expect TES to make sure the schools comply with all special education rules, Herba said.

"There is a significant amount of monitoring," she said. "The rules change frequently. Any time we have a question, we know we can call them."

Heart Academy and Health Academy both offer specialized curricula leading to careers in health care. Students complete all of Michigan's required high school coursework but also take health career classes and may participate in on-site clinical training leading to certification as a nurse aide.

Depending on their individual ability, not all special needs students can complete the full program, but the schools work to make classroom and curriculum accommodations to help them reach their potential, Herba said.

"We're able to show them they can learn," she said.

The consequences of a poorly run special education program go beyond just a failure to serve students well. Unhappy parents might file a complaint, which can generate a lengthy and expensive hearing process, or they might leave the school altogether, Porter said.

The need for solid special education services has become apparent to charter school authorizers, she said. It's much more likely now than 10 years ago that an organization planning to apply for a charter will be judged in part on whether it has a special education plan in place, she said.

The state's 2008 charter school report showed that, on average, about 9 percent of the students enrolled in public school academies are special needs students, compared to an average 15 percent among all conventional public schools. However, data from Michigan's Center for Educational Performance and Instruction show that the proportion of special education students served in charter schools is growing.

Most of TES' work in Michigan has been in the southeast corner of the state, but Porter said the private, for-profit company also has clients in the Flint, Portage and Ann Arbor areas.

In addition to providing special education support, TES also will work as a consultant with general education teachers on things like differentiated instruction, accommodations for individual students and developing lesson plans for their students with special needs.

More recently, it has branched into consulting with schools on general education at large, including Title I services for disadvantaged children, in the belief that whatever strengthens a school district overall is good for all its students.

"Our mantra is: A special education student is a general education student first," Porter said. "Let's stop labeling kids."

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Lorie Shane is the managing editor of the Michigan Education Report, the Mackinac Center’s education policy journal. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that Michigan Education Report is properly cited.