As your Director of Special Education for the City of Bridgeport, CT, I am clarifying the recent Supreme Court decision of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District and what it will mean for our district. District practices should be able to proceed without a lot of difficulties if we remain diligent about our procedures and inclusive with our educational resources. The court decision created a middle ground of what was established in Rowley (“merely more than de minims”) and what Endrew’s parents were asking for in their lawsuit (educational progress equal to that of non-disabled students). The IDEA requires schools, such as ours, that receive federal funding to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to all children with disabilities. The court rejected Endrew’s parents’ argument that a student with exceptionalities should have a “substantially equal” measurement of the progress of their education compared with other students. Instead, the justices’s decision will require us to provide some meaningful educational benefits that are “appropriately ambitious” and include “challenging objectives” and also meet all of the IDEA’s procedural requirements. The decision promoted the concept that children with disabilities should receive an education that shows progress when placed along side of their disabilities but stopped short of comparing their progress to their fellow students. I believe and have seen the evidence that the schools in our district are already doing this. Yet we must remain vigilant to head off any possible increased litigation that may question how our schools provide disability benefits to our students with special needs.
These new findings should not cause major disruptions in the education of our students in Bridgeport. The new interpretation of the IEP process has some leeway for us to take advantage of with considering how effective our school personnel follow our checklists when we develop our school based IEP plans. We need to be more concerned with the continuation of our existing IEP procedures while being mindful of how expensive it is becoming to adequately educate our students with special needs. This past year the State of Connecticut cut in half our educational funding for all our programs which has exerted pressure our ability to provide the services and programs that all our students need and deserve, not just our students with exceptionalities. Yet adhering to both the letter and intent of the new decision should be our aim and direction.
My staff and I have enhanced our procedures for IEP plan develop and I would like to emphasize the following important steps to always keep in mind. Taking the Endrew F. decision as a new guide, but being mindful of the new interpretation from the Court when considering how some practices have changed from what we knew from Rowley, it would appear that such procedures for establishing and maintaining plans must, at minimum always have: The active participation of the child’s parents/guardians. A laser-like focus on the individual student’s progress toward their unique educational goals. The flexibility to make the proper adjustments to our IEP plans as necessary for continued student development. The full and qualified team assembled for each IEP meeting (postponement is preferable to not including our key players). An outline of objectives and goals that are both challenging and scaffold upon previous student instruction. Above all else the proper documentation of the academic evidence that portrays student progress and the needs we have previously identified. These recordings must be clear and continually updated.
The Court has spoken much more strongly and with more precision than its previous 1982 pronouncement on the FAPE standard in Rowley. Our IEP teams will now be tasked with developing more ambitious, attainable goals given the unique circumstances of each student. School teams must therefore ensure that lack of progress is not due to poorly drafted goals, inadequate instructional practices or flawed data collection or interpretation. We must be ever vigilant concerning all the unique and special circumstances that each special education student manifests.