There is no easy fix for the Austin ISD Special Education Assessment backlog. The students are left waiting.

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Daughter Katherine Whitley Chu was two and a half years old when the COVID-19 pandemic began. When she was stuck at home, her family got used to the way the little girl spoke. But when she returned to kindergarten after 17 months, teachers and students struggled to understand her speech.

“We could understand her,” Whitley Chu said. “I think we were so isolated, we didn’t hear a lot of other kids that age to compare her and see where she was.”

A pediatrician recommended that her daughter be evaluated for special education services. So, Whitley Chu emailed Austin ISD asking for a full evaluation. The assessment determines whether the student has a disability as well as what services and supports they are entitled to receive.

Whiteley Chu had heard rumors that getting an appraisal across the region was taking longer than it was supposed to. The rumors were true. Once a parent or guardian requests or agrees to an evaluation, it is legally required to take place within 45 school days. But months went by, and Whitley Chu worried about the effect waiting for services would have on her daughter.

She decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I applied and started calling for private speech therapy services, and many places have waiting lists for months,” she said.

When Whitley Cho ended up finding someone who could see her daughter, the provider didn’t take out the insurance. Her family ended up paying for everything out of pocket.

She said, “Most families can’t do that. It’s an undue hardship on people, and we were very lucky to be able to do it for our child.”

The process Whitley Chu went through to get her daughter a private education evaluation was not only long, but also stressful. I struggled to figure out the right person to contact in the area for updates. When a Licensed School Psychologist (LSSP) finally became available—seven months after her initial request—this person was an Austin ISD contractor who lived in another city and conducted the assessment via Zoom.

The number of hours it takes [when] You’re looking at what to do, what’s the law, who should I email, write emails, on the phone, do whatever you can, it becomes very consuming,” she said.

A Woman Sitting In Front Of A Desk.

Kathryn Whitley Chu was elected to the Austin ISD School Board in November.

It became so consuming that Whitley Chu began limiting the hours she worked at Austin Community College. Eventually, her daughter obtained speech therapy services through Austin ISD. But the challenges she faced getting there made her want to advocate for other students in the same position as her daughter. She decided to run for a seat on the Austin ISD board of trustees last November and won in a landslide.

Three more new Trustees – all of whom have worked in education – were elected to the School Board. The day after the election, the board members learned that they would be tasked with finding a new interim supervisor. They appointed Matías Segura, then Chief Operating Officer, to fill that role. Since it began on January 3, Segura and the Board have made improving special education services their top priority. But three months later, the state announced plans to intervene.

How bad is the buildup?

As of late March, 1,808 Austin ISD special education assessments are overdue. This number includes initial assessments and reassessments for students who are already receiving services. reevaluation It should happen at least once every three years.

According to the Texas Education Agency, Austin ISD’s failure to provide special education services in a timely manner is so profound that state oversight is required.

Last week, TEA announced a plan to hire a management team for Austin ISD’s Special Education Division. This comes nearly two years after an advocacy group called Disability Rights Texas filed a federal lawsuit against the county over the long-overdue evaluations. Stephen Aleman, the group’s chief policy specialist, said it was time for the country to get involved. He said that while it was encouraging that the interim superintendent and school board focused on improving special education, the problem had persisted for far too long.

“Regardless of changes in the board of directors or even in the superintendent’s office,” he said, “for that matter, the bottom line is that the district itself has a problem that has really gone from bad to worse.”

“maybe [students] They don’t learn to read, they probably don’t learn to write, and they can’t get that time back while the district waits a year for its assessment.”

Amy Trost, Austin’s father ISD

Amy Trost, Austin’s ISD mother, waited more than a year to have her child reevaluated. Her son has Down syndrome, and he has been receiving special education services since kindergarten. But he didn’t get all the support Trost thought he needed to be successful in a general education class.

While her son was eligible for services like speech and occupational therapy, the county refused to give him an aide for the number of hours Trost wanted.

“We’ve never been able to include it as fully in the general education class as we’d like, and so we felt this kind of banging our heads against a wall all those years,” she said.

Now, her son is in middle school, and Troost wants him reevaluated for autism to ensure he gets the services he needs.

Her family requested the re-evaluation on January 18, 2022. It was legally required to complete it within 45 school days, but it has not happened for over a year.

Trost said she doesn’t think it’s a bad situation for her son because he’s getting services, but said the county’s failure to provide initial evaluations on time is “a disgrace.”

“maybe [students] They don’t learn to read, they probably don’t learn to write, and they can’t get that time back while the district waits a year for its assessment.”

Trost said she believes special education is a priority for interim superintendent Segura.

“We’ll just have to see if anything changes,” she said.

Austin ISD has a plan, but staffing remains an issue

ISD officials outlined Austin steps They take to improve special education services when the school board held a special meeting on Monday. These steps include a new dashboard to track assessments, more robust recruitment efforts, and ongoing collaboration and training with education consulting firm Stetson and Associates. The same company evaluated and published A a report on special education services at AISD last year.

“There are major problems to overcome, but I have absolutely no doubt this area will because of the level of work planning that’s going on,” said Francis Stetson, the company’s president.

Stetson said many school districts are struggling to find residents because there is a nationwide shortage. The problem is particularly bad in Texas. There is one LSSP (known as a school psychologist in most other states) for every 2,597 students, according to the Texas Association of School Psychologists.

Within Austin ISD, there are 75 positions for LSSPs and Educational Diagnostics, who can assess students. Only 22 of those have been filled, according to data the district shared Monday.

And the evaluation backlog at Austin ISD can actually make it more difficult to hire more staff. This is why the region is not only focused on improving wages but also on work culture, Segura said.

“We don’t want people to come to AISD and immediately feel like they’re going to be overburdened,” he said. “We want to make sure they are supported so they can do the work.”

In recent years, employees in the special education department have not felt supported, according to the Stetson report, which included comments from employees. Employees described a culture that was punitive and unsupportive. The previous administration, under former AISD supervisor Stephanie Elizalde, decided to lay off employees and have them reapply for jobs citing a “toxic work environment”. Some of the people who got their jobs back are still treacherous. By district, 58 LSSPs and educational diagnosticians have resigned or retired between the 2019-2020 school year and the 2021-2022 school year.

Attracting and retaining employees is not the only challenge. Recent instability and the current backlog make it difficult to create a pipeline of potential employees, such as graduate students studying to be school psychologists.

Kizzy Albritton, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at UT Austin College of Education, said her department includes students who have completed internships in local school districts such as Leander, Pflugerville, Round Rock and Del Valle ISDs.

Graduate students don’t usually choose to practice with Austin ISD, Albritton said, because of the heavy backlog in special education assessments.

“We want to be specific about whether we believe students will have the opportunity to complete all required experiences without feeling overwhelmed or upset with the challenges currently in place,” she said.

The current evaluator shortage at Austin ISD and the lack of a strong pipeline of new talent raises the question: How will these assessments be implemented and done well? A proposed state conservatorship, for example, doesn’t come with a pool of assessors willing to tackle the backlog.

Trost says kids deserve the best and right now they’re not getting it.

“Every student at Austin ISD deserves to learn to the best of their abilities,” she said. “That’s the district’s burden: to provide those services and supports for every child.”