Hillsborough officials discuss progress in ESE safety
The Tampa Bay Times met recently with Exceptional Student Education General Director Maryann Parks, Assistant Superintendent George Gaffney and Deputy Superintendent Jeffrey Eakins to discuss efforts to improve safety in ESE. A key news event – the creation of three levels of ESE paraprofessionals – had not yet been announced. We discussed changes that came as the result of work group study commissioned in the aftermath of two student deaths in 2012. This is a partial transcript.
Gradebook: I’ll start with the first recommendation in the work group’s report, for district-wide staff training in basic emergency and medical procedures, to be verified before anyone starts work. Is that in place and what does it look like?
Eakins: We ensured that every employee had a very structured pre-planning event. It revolved around four key pillars.
The first was making sure everyone totally understood from the district’s perspective what our standards and expectations were for safety and supervision, and that was captured in a short video. That weaves into a second part of that training that every staff goes through, the crisis management training where they talk about emergency preparedness and medical emergency and how they respond to it. We wanted to make sure they saw an actual scenario played out in their staff so they could see the response by the teacher, the response by the office and the coordination between them, what would happen if it was the classroom or out in the P.E. field.
From there we then delved a little bit deeper into ESE. There was a video Maryann narrated, “Knowing your Students, Knowing your School.” It talked about why it’s important to know every student on your campus, not just you as your teacher, so that everyone knows the variety of needs of the children on that campus, what could happen to potentially medically fragile children.
And then we then went just a little bit deeper with just our ESE teachers and our teachers who are general education teachers who teach ESE students in their classrooms, and we had all the teachers then watch from Dr. (Nancy) French a separate video on how you’re to supervise those paraprofessionals now that they have been to a training, so you are all on the same page.
GB: Have all school-based employees been through that training?
Eakins: Yes. And the ALD’s (area leadership directors) are receiving all the signed forms for every employee on that site.
The next piece is now monitoring it, because we know that training is just as good as what you have now internalized. The staff will be going over their elopement plans so the ALD clearly understands and the leadership articulates that here is our plan in case a student is to go missing or elopes and here is our response to it. The ALD’s will be monitoring and we will be following up with the ALD’s. I talked to a principal Wednesday who said they already had one elopement drill at their school. I know there’s others out there doing that and so what they’ve noticed is little things that they have to sharpen, sharpen, sharpen. It could be radio communication. We’ve asked that after every drill there should be a debrief. It’s a continuum, almost a cyclical kind of process.
GB: What has it been like trying to develop elopement understanding prevention for different age groups?
Parks: You have to put a procedure in place for everybody. Then you have to tweak it based on the needs. If you’re in a high school and you get students who skip all the time, you won’t even know if the student skips if there is an attendance issue. But if somebody sees students walking out of school, they should notify somebody right away. But if you’re talking about students that have to be supervised, then you have to put the things in place, meeting them at the buses, making sure you have people in the hallways when you’re changing classes. You have to know students at your school, and you have to know the difference between elopement and a missing child.
That doesn’t mean we don’t give kids freedom. But you have to have teachers in place and know the students are where they need to be. I wish it was easy. But you have to know your population. And you have to have good conversation amongst teachers if the students move, and they do move, and that’s why it’s so important this year that elective teachers are part of the paraprofessional training. We have to build teachers’ skills up on how to direct paraeducators.
GB: Tell me more about the paraprofessional training.
Parks: We’ve always had it. There is a supervising para training that we’ve had for many years. We’ve have over 10 different para trainings. It’s not that we’ve never had training, we just never mandated it - but we encouraged it.
Paras come all the time. They’re packed and stacked and they appreciate it so much. But supervising somebody is different, so I think the part we are trying to work on is that top-down piece. If a teacher’s having a hard time supervising a para, that’s natural. If the para is older, that’s something difficult. The other part we put into place is the para educators schedules. During pre-planning they received para schedules, where their paras are and they have a second schedule if people are out to provide coverage.
GB: The impression I got from the para training that I attended was that people appreciated it, and even the intangible benefit of being brought into the conversation.
Parks: Absolutely. And I think it’s that professionalism, and that’s our goal constantly, to treat them like the professionals they are and to give them opportunities to grow.
GB: One thing I hear about is issue of unique needs, or one-on-one aides. The school needs to hire the aide and sometimes this process takes a long time, so people suspect that the principal wants to save money.
Parks: Let’s go back to the issue of additional adult assistance. The IEP (individual educational plan) team makes a decision where that would be. It might be during transition, so the students don’t hurt themselves. At that point it’s up to the principal to see if there is anyone available for, let’s just say, transitions. You might have somebody who could walk that student to class. It might be the ESE specialist.
If that isn’t the answer, we get a request form to ask for additional adult assistance. We are trying to be efficient, it has nothing to do with money. We have over 300 unique needs aides and attendants. There’s never ever been a day that I’ve ever even heard money come out of anybody’s mouth. So that’s a misunderstanding.
Now, there is a process. We don’t have people sitting on the street corners. You have to advertise, interview and hire the right people. It’s a good workforce in the sense that I highly respect that principals want to hire the right person.
GB: It was our impression, when we studied salaries, that you have a lot of aides who are temporary, working without benefits. Could that be why you have high turnover, which depresses the earnings?
Parks: I don’t have the data on turnover, but I probably will disagree. I think it’s an issue of getting people to want to work. I think unique needs aides get put into other positions because they want to stay with us, which is a good thing. People stay. This is a career for people. I know many people, aides and attendants, that have dedicated their lives to working in the school district. You can work in McDonald’s and make a dollar or two more, but you don’t have a career.
GB: What are some things people do not understand about ESE, about ESE teachers or how the district provides services?
Parks: I’ve never worked with a harder working group of people, people that dedicate their lives. They are very dedicated to these students and to making sure that students get what they need. They care about students, they care about families and you need to have that passion in order to stay and do some of the things they do. I don’t know if there’s a misperception to be honest with you.
GB: Putting aside the tragedies of last year, the news stories brought some people to us who had other issues about ESE. We were told of teachers who couldn’t get enough help. We heard from parents who felt they were steamrolled at the IEP meetings.
Parks: So let’s just go with the misperception about the IEP. I think we are very open to hearing all sides of the story and we’ve always had a very good reputation for that. I want to hear from parents. We as a school district feel that way. We don’t always have to agree but we surely all have to agree that we are going to sit down for the best interest of the student.
GB: Is it safe to say that at end of the day there is not enough money to do everything?
Parks: Realistically, that’s a bigger issue than ESE. But I will absolutely tell you that money has never been, can’t be an issue and it hasn’t been. When you sit down and show parents and explain it, they are very understanding of how things work.
But there are a lot of things that go into the IEP. There is data from the students’ gains. There are evaluations that have taken place. There is parental input about how things are at home. So if you think about how complicated that can be with all the elements, there’s a lot to it. And by the way, we have to try things and see if they work. The IEP is a working document, it’s not just yearly.
GB: Is it possible to pay teachers, bus drivers and paras for all the training that they need and to what extent is that an issue?
Eakins: Part of the feedback that we received from parents and from teachers and principals was that we have to make sure we don’t pull people out during their instruction, which makes total sense because we want to ensure the safety of all the children. So we’ve entered this year with training prior to the children coming to school. And we will make sure that if we have professional planning days, we incorporate training for those on the clock. What we’re trying to be is more strategic about protecting the classroom.
Parks: Remember also that for teachers, when they go to training, even if they are not paid, they get in-service points to help them toward their certification. But we’re absolutely paying the paras for training.
GB: How much will that cost?
Parks: I don’t know. I honestly don’t. Again, money is not the object here.
GB: There still seems to be confusion on the issue of whether you should call 911 in emergency or have an administrator call 911.
Parks: I don’t think you would be confused if you saw that video. What I took from that is, if you are somewhere where no one is, you call 911 if you have your phone with you and then you call the office afterwards. By no means did it tell them not to call 911. The biggest part of that is, sometimes you don’t have a cell phone with you.
Gaffney: No one will ever make a wrong decision by calling 911 first.
GB: As you have gone about tightening up safety, have you found that there is sometimes a tradeoff between inclusion and safety?
Parks: To me it’s an apples and orange comparison. IEP teams make decisions and our job as a district is then to provide that service. That’s what inclusion is about. Sometimes it can be done in some schools. Some services are available in some schools. But safety should be anywhere you go. So if the IEP team makes a decision, our job is to make sure that student is safe. What I think is misunderstood is that all services don’t need to be at all schools. Inclusion services is recommended by an IEP team and we wrap the safety around it.
GB: So you send the child to the closest school where the services are.
Parks: And if they can stay in their neighborhood school with inclusive practices we build that in. That’s why it’s called the individual educational plan. I mean, you have to have a framework; we’re a large district. Every student in this district, 200,000 we are approaching, all have to be safe.
GB: What more would you want to say about the work group project?
Eakins: One of the things teachers, paras and parents will see is that the district has listened to their concerns. And I think that from the very beginning with the ESE task force, we have to be transparent about how we walk through all of these issues moving forward and knowing that there were gaps that were identified. There were situations we needed to ensure that we had training, proper follow-up and monitoring all with transparency that will also hold us accountable.
GB: So your work is not finished, this effort will continue?
Eakins: Absolutely. I think this is one of these things that we have to continually revisit. Let’s say that once negotiations are over and the result of that is going to help us better recruit and retain staff. We will collect data to see if that has been effective. If, for some reason the initial data shows we are still stagnant, we need to go back and look at what other levers we have to include in this.
As Maryann said, one aspect of the para part is fulfillment. Fulfillment comes with work conditions, and support and training, and creating career ladders for our employees at our schools until any one of us should be satisfied with the pool of applicants at the ready, that we feel confident can come in and take any of our vacancies. That may be working with universities more closely, or a marketing campaign much like Principal Pipeline. We can learn an awful lot from our other initiatives. We can employ similar strategies to take care of other types of issues that we’re dealing with, whether it is a shortage of ESE aides or bus drivers. But I think it’s going to be a constant loop back and revisit, monitor our data and that includes surveying.
GB: So the surveying will continue?
Eakins: Absolutely. That’s about the feeling from our workforce and our parents that we’ve taken the steps that we needed to take.
GB: Is it safe to say this has been a year of some reflection and self-examination in terms of ESE?
Gaffney: This is all ongoing. There should never be a time in our district when we’re not looking for way to continue to get better and what we’re doing has to be ongoing, and that’s not just about ESE. It’s about the district and each principal should have that same feeling and I think they do. Things change so much that are mandated down to us from the federal and state government; one easy example would be our testing. It changes and it changes. So we have to be understanding and flexible and realize that it’s our job to change and in doing so we might stop what we’re doing and do something differently.
I really think with respect to ESE, Maryann Parks is brilliant and great to work with and great to have around kids. I feel like we are open to parents and we do address parents and we have not shied away from the parents who came to the (School Board) meeting. We addressed their concerns immediately. And as I told some of them, sometimes you just have to say no, but the idea is that we don’t want to do that. We are here to help every kid we have in our district and that’s the direction we have to go.
Eakins: As we make those student-by-student decisions, I think one of the things George and Maryann have as a priority is how they can ensure they’re communicating with parents that have concerns, not at all to shy away from those. You can get broader solutions when two or three parents have a concern and that gives you solutions for perhaps down the road for other unique situations. And they are doing, I believe, a great job at listening, trying to find, as George said, a way to say yes in situations. There may be times when no has to be the answer, for one reason or another, the issue is trying to develop solutions with parents that can best meet the student’s needs.
My background was not in exceptional student education. However, what I saw as a principal was a lot of true advocacy. When you would talk to a paraprofessional about their students’ needs and they said, “help me help them more,” and when you talked to an ESE teacher, it was always advocacy.
And for the people on Maryann’s staff, it’s always about advocacy and sometimes the misperception is that we’re not the advocate. And that is a complete misperception. They are advocates in their roles and they want to be able to meet students’ needs. We definitely know we have parents that are strong advocates for their children. We want to have a great collaboration so it is not advocate-adversary, but advocate-advocate in the best interest of kids. We will continue to use surveys and trust that that feedback will be honest. And ultimately we will look back one to two years and see how far we have come in that process. As George said, it’s going to be an ongoing monitoring of it and we should be transparent in the process.