The Tampa Bay Times met recently with the Hillsborough school district's 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 change — the creation of three levels of ESE paraprofessionals — had not yet been announced. We discussed changes that came as the result of a work group study commissioned in the aftermath of two student deaths in 2012. This is a partial transcript.
I'll start with the first recommendation in the work group's report, for districtwide 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 preplanning 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. From there we then delved a little bit deeper into ESE. There was a video Maryann narrated, Knowing Your Students, Knowing Your School. 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.
Have all school employees been through that training?
Eakins: Yes. And the 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. We've asked that after every drill there should be a debrief. It's a continuum, almost a cyclical kind of process.
What has it been like trying to develop elopement understanding and 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.
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.
Is that being done? And tell me more about the paraprofessional training.
Parks: Yes. We've always had it. There is a supervising para training that we've had for many years. But supervising somebody is different.
The other part we put into place is the para educators schedules. During preplanning they received para schedules, and they have a second schedule if people are out to provide coverage.
One thing people sometimes suspect is that principals are slow to hire one-on-one aides because they want to save money.
Parks: 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. 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 don't have people sitting on the street corners. You have to advertise, interview and hire the right people.
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. This is a career for people. I know many people, aides and attendants, that have dedicated their lives to working in the school district.
I've never worked with a harder working group of people. 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.
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: 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 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.
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. And by the way, we have to try things and see if they work.
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. Some services are available in some schools. But safety should be anywhere you go.
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.
Gaffney: This is all ongoing. There should never be a time in our district when we're not looking for ways to continue to get better and what we're doing has to be ongoing, and that's not just about ESE.
Eakins: 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.