APS/ATF Special Education Task Force Makes Progress

“It takes a lot of time and effort to change broken systems. Nothing changes without collective advocacy.”- ATF President Dr. Ellen Bernstein

Thursday, August 22, 2019, was a sweltering dog day with near-record heat, as special educators filed into the APS Berna Facio Professional Development Complex to discuss recent progress made by the APS/ATF Special Education Task Force. Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein and other members of the joint task force discussed the agreements with district officials while other special educators from across the city asked clarifying questions and shared insights. Two changes in special education practices were highlighted as great steps forward in addressing educator concerns.

  • The first was an agreement to use the PED’s Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) and Behavior Intervention Program (BIP) process and paperwork requirements. This will cut workloads for educators attempting to address behavioral concerns for students and to secure social work services for at-risk students. It was also agreed that an FBA/BIP is not required before requesting a referral for a social/emotional evaluation for School Social Work services.

 

  • The second agreement was to re-establish district-wide special education Instructional Councils for a wide variety of teachers and service providers, establishing democratic means to address issues within the Special Education Department.

Both changes were a long time coming and way overdue. These agreements are the culmination of 2 ½ years of union educator advocacy. On behalf of our members, we had long been trying to address what looked like a broken system in the APS Special Education Department, decrying excessive workloads, poor communication between district administration and special education providers, the constant addition of mandated work as the district reacted to lawsuits, and the district’s reticence to put mandates into writing or provide support for educators to meet new mandates.

To address these issues, ATF started a Special Education Committee which began meetings with the APS Special Education Department administration in January of 2017.

Some agreements were made in the early 2017 meetings, but there was a lack of follow through from the district and no headway was made toward systemic change. Abrupt mandates continued to flow from district administrations, systems were still glaringly broken, and staff workloads increased with no additional support or guidance given.

The problems continued to simmer into 2018 with high-level talks between the ATF President and district administration stalling. Union President Ellen Bernstein felt that the district was unwilling to listen to the concerns of educators.

The issue that finally pushed educators to demand action involved changes in the FBA/BIP paperwork. As a result of new mandates, the two-page form became a 30-page behemoth that taxed educators’ time and delayed the provision of services for very needy students. Special educators were also told that no child could receive social work services without the implementation of an FBA/BIP. Educators were fed up.

In frustration, the ATF Fed Rep Council debated a Vote of No Confidence against the APS Special Education Department administration. 30 special educators, all union members, joined President Bernstein to speak at the Board of Education meeting. Superintendent Raquel Reedy said that she heard their concerns clearly.

In meetings with our union president, the superintendent agreed to jointly commission a Sanderoff Poll to measure employee satisfaction and expose trouble spots that were driving educators out of APS and pushing morale to an all-time low. The poll was conducted in the summer of 2018 and its results were no shock to ATF leadership or educators across the district. The results indicated widespread dissatisfaction with educators’ work environments, low morale, and a deep frustration with poor communications.

Although 85% of special educators polled believed their jobs serving students are meaningful and 74% were satisfied with the work they do with students, only 42% recommended APS as a good place to work.  Respondents pointed to low morale and major workload issues, excessive paperwork, little time for lesson planning and preparation, and a lack of compensation for additional time spent working outside the contract day.  The source of these troubles became apparent.

While 81% of participants believed they were treated fairly by their immediate supervisor (principals, assistant principals, and other site administrators) educators consistently attached their dissatisfaction to a lack of collaboration between district administration and staff, poor communication between APS Special Ed. Dept. administrators and staff, lack of training in curricula and instructional strategies, and constant mandated changes in policies and procedures that were not put in writing.

A confirmation of these findings came through a September 2018 visit from Council of Great City Schools. The Council found that the district has many assets that are being under-used such as talented and dedicated staff, the Child Find program, a focus on not over-identifying EL students and the vast majority of special education evaluations being completed on time. However, they noted a special education population that was higher than the national average, students taught in overly segregated settings, students in special education using markedly different materials than their general education counterparts, a weak professional development system in the district, extremely poor district communication, a low level of trust in APS administration on the part of ATF, lack of a district-wide positive behavior system, low numbers of school psychologists, and poorly executed parent engagement.

The Council recommended a focused district-wide positive-behavior system, more cooperation between the district, the union, and local higher education institutions, a clearly defined Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) focusing on prevention of academic and behavioral problems, the alignment of academic supports for all students, greater accountability of district administration, school-based leadership alignment, and differentiated PD options for educators.  The Council noted that administrators lacked a common vision and teachers lacked the support of mid-level administrators. APS was found to need a uniform district-wide SAT process.

These findings and recommendations validated many of the educators’ assertions. Furthermore, special education staff spoke of their exclusion from decision-making. “We know that when people don’t believe they have influence, they become disengaged,”  said Dr. Bernstein.

Taking the two studies above into account, the district and the union set up the Special Education Joint Task Force which began meeting in January 2019.  Once again, educators on the panel felt frustrated and talks almost broke down early on because educators felt that APS administration was stalling on making significant commitments to change. Union leadership even contemplated reviving the No Confidence vote. Continued pressure from ATF finally prevailed as the Task Force continued their work through the summer.

As a result of the union’s perseverance, Instructional Councils (ICs), the cornerstone of democratic decision-making in our worksites and schools, will be re-instated on a district level for several special education role groups.  ICs for Social Workers, Speech and Language Therapists, Transition Specialists, Head Special Ed. Teachers, Evaluators (School Psychologists, Diagnosticians, SLP & OT Evaluators) and Motor Therapists (OT, PT, OMS, APE) are now guaranteed the same rights as their counterparts at school sites.

Another win ATF extracted from this joint task force work is that starting in August 2019, we have agreed to use the NM PED’s established BIP/FBA process. This will eliminate mounds of paperwork for educators and streamline procedures to secure needed services to students. An FBA/BIP is no longer required before requesting a referral for a social/emotional evaluation for School Social Work services. However, if a school team chooses, they can continue to use the 2018-19 FBA/BIP process and forms.

Special Education Role Group Instructional Councils will meet on the 1stand 3rd Thursdays of each month from 4:30-6:30pm. ATF will facilitate the elections for representatives from each of the above listed role groups. If you would like to self-nominate for a Special Education Instructional Council, you can do so here.

We would like to thank the ATF members who worked so diligently toward these wins.