Hoping to improve special-education services for some 18,000 students, the Detroit Public Schools are turning to technology to manage the mountains of paperwork associated with federal and state requirements.
District officials have signed a 3-year, $6.3 million contract with Maryland-based 4GL School Solutions to supply special education management software to the city’s 269 schools. Officials said the software will more than pay for itself, as they expect to recover an additional $12 million to $15 million in federal funding per year with improved record-keeping.
“The bottom line is that tracking data for special education has become so complicated that it is beyond the capability of the average staff person to deal with it using the old methods,” said 4GL President and Chief Executive Officer Clark Easter.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1998-99 about one out of every eight students had an individualized education program. Federal and state law dictate that numerous data must be tracked for each such student.
Special-education information is the most complex data that school districts must deal with, Easter said, and student records frequently are managed on paper or in smaller databases that don’t “speak” to one another.
The numerous federal and state deadlines educators have to meet are what make this task so challenging.
“Typically, when a child is first identified as needing special services, there are timelines at the state, local, and district levels,” said Easter.
“For example … when you suspect a certain disability in a child, depending upon the state you are in, you might have either 60 or 70 days to order the assessment for the child, get parent permission to do the assessment, and do the actual testing. Then, during that time, the staff needs to write up the results, and after all of that, you still have to give the parents 10 days prior notice before holding a meeting to discuss the school’s recommendations.”
4GL’s Special Education Tracking System (SETS) is designed to permit a school district to base its services on accurate and complete data.
SETS incorporates a database of all special education students to give special education teachers and counselors instant access to complete, updated, individualized information about students.
That is vitally important to schools, which routinely face legal action in the form of “consent decrees,” or class-action lawsuits that occur when a district falls behind on tracking and providing mandated special education services.
According to 4GL’s estimates, the average district is behind on about 20 percent of cases, and litigation is a serious threat to districts already strapped for funds.
“For instance, if a parent finds out that a child should have had speech [classes] for a year and has not received [them], that parent can bring legal action against the district,” said Easter.
The Detroit school system is not currently involved in a consent decree, but Thomas Diggs, chief information officer for the district, acknowledged that it has had some serious problems in the past.
Special-education data are “so complex and so hard to keep track of. There are lots of federal and state regulations to comply with, and it requires an inordinate amount of paperwork,” Diggs said.
Easter agreed there is a breakdown in special education record-keeping because of the mountains of associated paperwork, with anywhere from 30 to 50 pages of forms required for each student. “The staff gets totally overwhelmed,” he said.
The paperwork problem is addressed by putting all forms online, said Easter. The electronic version looks exactly like the paper version, but includes a compliance-checking feature that alerts staff to deadlines and automatically formats documents.
Diggs hopes that better data management will allow the Detroit schools to recoup all of the monies they should be getting from the federal government.
“This way, we’ll be able to more accurately report exactly what our true needs are,” Diggs said. “Consequently, our special education students will be the [beneficiaries].” 4GL estimates it will take Detroit from $3 million in yearly Medicaid recovery to between $15 million and $18 million.
4GL is not the only company that provides a solution for managing special-education information.
In fact, providers of larger student information systems—such as Administrative Assistants Ltd., Chancery Software, and NCS Pearson—often include a special-education tracking module as part of their larger offering.
But, according to Easter, 4GL has an advantage over larger systems that address more than just special education.
“We were developed to get Baltimore City out of a consent decree, and we succeeded in doing that last year,” said Easter. “We have a deep understanding of both special education and education law.”
Maryanne Ralls, Baltimore City’s director of SETS support, said the district isn’t completely out of its consent decree yet, but “in three years we’ll be totally out of it. … We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
In Baltimore, SETS is accessed daily by more than 680 users to create timelines for 16,700 special-education students. Principals can use the system to pull up a set of reports that show, at a glance, exactly where their school stands in terms of regulatory compliance, and district officials can pull up reports to show how area schools are in compliance.
The results have been compelling. “We took [Baltimore City’s] data accuracy from 50 percent to more than 96 percent,” said 4GL’s Easter.
According to Ralls, the district’s Medicaid recovery has skyrocketed from $2.5 million to $25 million, and compliance violations were cut by up to 90 percent in many buildings. SETS also found more than 1,000 children for the state child count whom the district had been unable to track previously, a finding worth more than $450,000 per year in funding.
And that’s not according to 4GL, but the results of a state-conducted audit of services at the district, Ralls said.
Detroit school officials are excited about SETS. “We have been up and down this trail on a number of occasions,” said Diggs. “Our employees are enthusiastic about the demo and are working with us to bring about the implementation.”
Because SETS is a thin-client solution, it can be run from a central server using the same hardware the school already has, Diggs said.
4GL is hoping to bring online teacher training to Detroit, in the form of an interactive CD-ROM that would provide a link to the company’s web site.
“We hope to have a pilot up in about 10 months, and have [the entire system] running in about 18 months,” Diggs said.
Detroit Public Schools
4GL School Solutions Inc.
Baltimore City Public School System