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Special education students need more time to master core subjects like reading and math and teachers with expertise in those subjects should be teaching them, according to an audit of special education in Lincoln Public Schools.

“The gift of time is a key component of raising the achievement of struggling students,” consultant Nate Levenson told the Lincoln Board of Education Monday, and that’s not always happening at LPS.

Instead, special education teachers without the subject expertise or para-educators often teach small groups during regular class time. 

"The person who helps them, their skill and training matter a lot," said Levenson, president of District Management Council, the Boston company LPS hired to audit the special education department. 

"The single biggest variable of how much students learn is not the wisdom of your superintendent, the consultant you hired or the curriculum you build. It's the teacher."

That was among the findings of a $150,000 audit of special education in LPS, carried out as one of the strategic goals of the district.

The special education department spent more than $60 million last year to serve more than 6,000 students identified with a wide range of disabilities.

Consultants interviewed staff, surveyed parents, community groups and administrators, visited classrooms and analyzed staff schedules.

The report commended LPS staff for its commitment to helping students succeed, the passion and investment of district administrators and for its investment in special education staff.

In fact, the audit found, LPS has 1.2 times as many special education teachers and 1.5 times as many para-professionals as districts with similar demographics. Funding isn’t a problem, Levenson said, but there will be challenges to shift resources and streamline schedules.

“You have a number of things going well,” Levenson said. “There’s a lot to be proud of, but there’s a lot of work to do.”

Among the recommendations was to streamline work that speech language pathologists and psychologists do so they spend more of their time working directly with students and less time on paperwork and administrative duties.

Psychologists now spend an average of 11 percent of their time working directly with students.

Special education coordinators also often have many other responsibilities to help run a school, such as monitoring the lunchroom or recess. They should spend more time on special education duties, the report found, which would help reduce the administrative work of special education staff.

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An online survey of 628 parents found 82 percent were pleased with the services their child receives, and nearly 89 percent thought their children were benefiting from accommodations provided through individualized education plans.

But the report also noted the persistent achievement gap between regular and special education students: 21 percentage points for third-graders in reading and math that widens to a 23-percentage point gap in math by 11th grade and 31 percent in reading.

Vicki Depenbusch, the parent of a senior at Lincoln East High School and program director for both the Autism Network and ARC of Lincoln, said the findings were “spot on.”

The study found that elementary resource teachers spend 44 percent of their time and para-professionals spend 39 percent of their time teaching reading.

“By relying on special education staff to provide core classroom instruction, some special education students may not be exposed to grade-level material or high expectations like other students,” the report said.

Instead, the report recommended shifting about $6 million of the $16.5 million budgeted for elementary special education staff to train more teachers specifically in reading interventions.

At the secondary level, special education students often take intervention classes that are structured like study halls, with no teachers with expertise available to help.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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