As your Director of Special Education for the City of Bridgeport, CT., I am writing to you today to clarify concerns that the recent Supreme Court decision of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District has presented and what it will mean for our district. District practices should be able to proceed as usual 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 minimis”) and what Endrew’s parents were asking for in their lawsuit (educational progress equal to that of non-disabled students). All of our schools in the district are responsible for identifying and evaluating children from birth to age 21 with disabilities and make appropriate services available, regardless of cost (Child Find CT). The IDEA requires schools, such as those in our district, that receive federal funding to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to all children with disabilities. The IDEA broadly defines “handicapped children” to include, “mentally retarded, hard of hearing, deaf, speech impaired, visually handicapped, seriously emotionally disturbed, orthopedically impaired, and other health impaired children, and children with specific learning disabilities.” (IDEA). The Court also has made allowances for the expertise of our educational staff with the collaboration of parents/guardians to make the many critical decisions necessary for individual plans. 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 justice’s decision will require us to provide some meaningful educational benefits that are “appropriately ambitious” and include “challenging objectives” (Endrew, 2017) 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 disagreements and increased litigation that may question how our schools provide disability benefits to our students with special needs. Any review of an IEP must be grounded in the belief appreciate that the critical point is whether the IEP is reasonable, not whether the court regards it as ideal.” (Rowley 1982).
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 effectively 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 balancing the need to be 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 (postponements are but 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. The recordings of this data must be clear and continually updated with a review conducted at least annually.
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 but merely the natural occasional occurrence of a student learning new material. We must be ever vigilant concerning all the unique and special circumstances that each special education student manifests. Because our State of Connecticut standards are in agreement with the standard in Endrew F., the decision should not be a major shift for special education law in our district of the city of Bridgeport.