A Special-Ed Software Solution


By John M. Williams When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975, critics saw a bureaucratic nightmare in the making. IDEA requires public schools to offer a free and "appropriate" education to all children with disabilities, mandating that school districts nationwide develop Individual Education Programs (IEPs) for students with physical and/or learning disabilities. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 6.1 million students with disabilities now qualify for IEPs.

Alas, for 25 years, insufficient funding for staff, staff training, and the purchase of assistive technology products -- plus excessive regulations from state and federal governments -- have hampered the goals of IDEA. Result: Tens of thousands of costly lawsuits have been filed against school districts for failing to implement IDEA in a timely manner. To cut down on litigation, states have tried to take more of an initiative, developing statewide standards for IEPs.

With school set to begin again in another month, perhaps it's a good time for teachers, educators, and parents to take a lesson from the Cleveland-area Solon School District, where 450 of its 5,011 students require IEPs. Since January of 1999, the educational salons of Solon have been using software developed by a local company that created an easy-to-use database for all special-education information.

"WE WERE DESPERATE." Best of all, the software is so specialized it actually helps districts keep track of state and federal reg requirements, helping to ensure compliance. "We were desperate to find a solution," says Dale Jakab, coordinator of pupil services for the Solon City School System, who began hunting for IEP-specific software in 1998.

"When Dale told us his problem, we accepted the challenge," says Jim Dunn, vice-president of Foresight Technology Group of nearby Brecksville, Ohio. For months, Jakab, the school district's psychologists, and Foresight execs met every two weeks to build and evaluate a prototype IEP application. With assistance from IBM, the company developed a customized Lotus Notes workflow application called CHiP (Child Intervention Process).

"During the development of CHiP, a fundamental philosophical shift took place: from viewing IEPs as an isolated activity to tracking the status and progress of a student through the entire school system," says Jakab. "CHiP's goal was to automate all the forms used in the special education process, and provides a means for the district's personnel to view all special education data in a timely manner."

BENEFITS. So what's changed? One of the immediate benefits of CHiP was that it allowed school officials to quickly and simply view the deficiencies in individual IEPs. And, like teachers, the software knows never to underestimate the power of a timely reminder: It repeatedly tells individuals of the need to submit their reports on time.

Before CHiP, school personnel in Solon -- like those in many other districts around the nation -- either hand-wrote or typed their assessment information and submitted it to be typed or reentered. Because the hand-written documents were submitted with varying degrees of legibility and many different word processing applications were used, too much of the onus for deciphering the documents fell on the secretary.

The replication capabilities of Lotus Notes, specially adapted to ChiPs, allows users to work from anywhere. Now, professionals submit their work as a finished document, with no retyping necessary. Another benefit: The information is highly encrypted, ensuring student/teacher confidentiality.

BETTER GRADES. Solon City Schools operate an IBM AS/400 platform, or i series, with the popular Education Management Information System academic administrative application. The system tracks both student ID data and special education data. Lotus Notes and CHiP allow the school to design multiple views of the same data, sorting by disability, three-year reevaluation date, age, school, goal areas, IEP case number, and case manager.

I spoke with the parent of one Solon student: "This new system makes it easier for my child and his teachers to coordinate his IEP. Since the program started, my child's grades are improving and so is his attitude."

And the payoff for educators? Solon school officials estimate special education teachers have reduced the time spent on each IEP by 33%, and that each school psychologist has reduced the time devoted to documentation-related activities by five hours per week. The program has now attracted the attention of a second school system in the Greater Cleveland area, Strongsville City Schools.

STATEWIDE ADOPTION? So far, Strongsville officials report good results. Assistant Schools Superintendent Rea Cantwell says: "ChiP allows our education professionals to spend more time with children rather than on paperwork."

Napoleon Area Schools Superintendent Ken Holly, whose Ohio district has 2,400 students -- 324 in IEPs -- is also experimenting with the new technology. "ChiP addresses the requirement of meeting the deadlines required for IEPs," he says. Holly believes CHiP will be more successful after teachers get more computer-skills training. "When everyone uses it on the same level, the student is better served," he says. He's pushing for statewide adoption.

These Buckeye educators figure ChiP costs about $50 per student each year. The cost covers two weeks of training and one year of maintenance. Administrators who have tried it think the money is well-spent. "When you figure schools will save money on lawsuits and administrative costs, the program pays for itself," says Holly, whose district was involved in a $3,700 lawsuit settlement he says could have been avoided if paperwork had been completed on time.

LOOK TO OHIO. Nationwide, school districts are struggling with the same issues, seeking outside assistance to help them develop and carry out IEPs for students with disabilities. Judy Heumann, a former assistant secretary for the U.S. Education Dept., says: "In my former position as overseer of IDEA, bitter complaints were heard daily from school administrators on how complicated IEPs were to administer."

IBM, Microsoft, and Apple are among the companies now working with schools to develop IEP administrative solutions. They would all be well-served to see the progress made by these schools in Ohio, thanks to the program developed by Foresight Technology Group. School districts interested in learning about CHiP can visit www.ldaproducts.com. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

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