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The East Baton Rouge Parish school system currently educates about 4,000 children with disabilities, approximately 10% of the student population in the district. However, a team of outside educators says that number is far less than the state and nation, indicating that hundreds, even thousands, of children in Baton Rouge are not getting the help they need.

This is one of the many findings of the external evaluation of special education in the parish school system that the Metropolitan School Board conducted earlier this year.

The state average for children receiving disability services is 12.5%, said Ray Hart, executive director of the council, and 14.4% for the nation. The average among the 78 metropolitan school districts that the board counts as members — East Baton Rouge is one of them — is 16%.

“So you are much younger in terms of your identification,” Hart told the parish board in a recent presentation.

If East Baton Rouge met the national average, it would serve 1,700 more children with special education than it does now. If it meets the average of the metropolitan school board’s peer districts, the school system will designate another 2,300 children in Baton Rouge for disability services.

That finding is part of a 219-page report completed last summer by a six-member strategic support team offered by the board as a perk for being a member. In the spring, the board conducted a similar assessment of the human resources department in the school system.

The Board’s evaluation teams are made up of principals who work in metropolitan school districts in the areas being evaluated.

The special education team visited Baton Rouge in late January and early February, and provided an early report to Supt. Seto Narcisse and his staff in the spring and then completed a final report during the summer. Hart gave a short presentation on the results at a school board meeting on November 17.

In his presentation to the school board, Hart made some other big findings.

One involved whether school staff identified the correct disabilities and whether they developed them early enough.

For example, in the early elementary grades, there are a relatively large number of children who teachers say have speech impairments, but many students later decide they have specific disabilities, such as reading problems, and are not diagnosed in large numbers until about fifth grade.

The findings make his team wonder, Hart said, “may there be an opportunity to identify children earlier to provide them with additional support.”

Board member Mike Gaudit was not surprised and asked why.

“I’ve heard constantly that we have a backlog in pupil assessment,” said Judit.

Hart said his team didn’t dive deep into why this happened, but said some of the delay appeared to have been on purpose. He suggested further internal investigation.

“If I’m not mistaken, there is a score level point where a number of assessments are made, they are done at a target point,” Hart said. “At that point, we saw a sudden spike in the number of students who were identified.”

Another issue highlighted by Hart is that many children with disabilities do not spend enough time in regular education classrooms, which he identifies as at least 80% of their day. About 70% of students with specific disabilities have spent 80% or more of their day in regular education classes, but only 10% of children with intellectual disabilities and 12% of children with autism are in their classrooms as much. Only Baton Rouge kids with emotional disabilities outpace the nation when it comes to percentage of time in the classroom.

“Students outside the classroom miss out on grade-level instruction,” Hart said. “They miss out on education in either math, reading, English arts, science, and social studies for additional support services, but they miss out on that education.”

The report provides detailed recommendations on how to fix the problems identified, some of which are already in the works. The big overhaul is for school system improvement to make the district-wide shift that Narcissus has created to what are known as “Multilevel Support Systems,” or MTSS, which coalesce into one of the popular school improvement strategies that has strong bases in education research.

This approach is new to most teachers in Baton Rouge. The Board conducted focus groups where they found that this transition so far “has been difficult for EBRPSS school staff.”

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