July 13, 2024


Built General Tough

Houston ISD’s latest special education critic: its own auditors

In yet another indictment of Houston ISD’s special education department, an internal audit published this month found extensive issues with the district’s staff training practices and protocols, putting the district at risk of denying students with disabilities their legal right to services.

Staff from HISD’s internal audit department and the Houston-based firm McConnell & Jones LLP jointly concluded that HISD “did not develop and manage its training program to effectively meet the district’s needs” after interviewing employees and reviewing numerous special education materials, according to a 32-page report.

The auditors, who only analyzed the department’s approach through the 2018-19 school year, took particular issue with HISD’s lack of virtual staff training, poor tracking of in-person training attendance and haphazard recordkeeping. HISD staff legally are required to identify students with disabilities, develop plans for meeting their learning needs, implement those plans and meet specific goals set for each student.

“Teaching professionals, including general education teachers that may have special education students in their class, are the individuals responsible,” the auditors wrote. “Therefore, it is crucial for each school district to ensure that their teaching professionals receive the appropriate training to implement the (plans) for the respective disability identified.”

In a statement Friday, HISD administrators said they have made numerous changes since 2019, including weekly monitoring of compliance data, monthly audits of student files and the addition of online training sessions. Employees’ performance plans also will specify which training courses are mandatory and optional in 2021-22.

“The HISD Office of Special Education Services has actively addressed the audit findings contained in the report,” district administrators said in their statement.

HISD’s audit committee chair, Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, said the inquiry emerged after prior reports of issues with special education in the district. She added that “it’s now up to the administration to respond to the recommendations that come from the audit.”

McConnell & Jones partner Odysseus Lanier, whose firm was hired by HISD to help conduct the audit, declined to comment on the findings.

The audit marks the fourth report in the past four years sharply criticizing HISD’s special education department.

A 2018 audit by the American Institutes for Research found 10 broad areas needing improvement in the department. Several months later, a board-led committee examining HISD’s service to students with disabilities described the situation as “grave.”

In September 2020, state investigators concluded HISD had failed to fix “significant, systemic and widespread” issues with special education, prompting the appointment of two conservators responsible for overseeing changes in the district. HISD administrators refuted the findings, arguing in part that they were based on outdated information.

HISD provided special education services to 7.9 percent of its 209,300 students in 2019-2020, the lowest rate among Texas’ largest school districts. About 10.5 percent of students statewide received special education services last school year.

The internal audit took a more narrow approach by focusing only on staff training, often referred to in education circles as “professional development.” During her three-year tenure leading the district, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan often said the special education department would provide more and better professional development to remedy issues documented by outside organizations.

While the auditors’ findings are based on practices from two-plus years ago, they suggest major improvements to training protocols were needed.

For instance, the auditors wrote that HISD’s special education department “cannot and did not enforce professional development” under practices in place at the time.

“Accordingly, the department did not require specific professional development for special education and general education teachers to ensure their understanding of how to implement (student learning plans),” the auditors wrote.

Those issues were exacerbated by an outdated approach to training, the auditors noted. All of the nearly 350 training sessions offered between September 2018 and July 2019 were conducted in-person, limiting participation by staff. Nobody enrolled in 50 of those sessions, the auditors found.

The auditors also were concerned that HISD’s special education department “did not maintain training materials for professional development courses” or provide evidence showing how instructional documents were created.

The shortcomings occurred during the first full year of Lathan’s tenure as interim superintendent and Special Education Executive Director Shannon Verrett’s leadership of the department.

Verrett’s team created a three-year strategic plan in 2018 to tackle special education issues, though the state investigation suggested the effort has not led to substantial changes. In a June 2020 report to board members, HISD’s special education leaders said they had added 73 online training courses, expanded campus-based professional development, created numerous written training materials and added more accountability measures.

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