Despite state takeover, special education problems linger for Muskegon Heights schools
New reports show special education students in Muskegon Heights didn’t get all the services they should have this year. The company that runs the state’s first all-charter public school district is working to correct the problems.
Problems with charter company’s handling of special ed services
Federal law and state regulations outline the rules that are supposed to make sure kids with special needs still get a fair education.
Michigan’s Department of Education found more than a dozen ways the new Muskegon Heights charter district violated those rules, affecting a couple hundred special education students.
“In my opinion this was probably the worst delivery of special education services I’ve seen in my career,” said Norm Kittleson, a former special education teacher at Muskegon Heights. He’s been teaching for 15 years.
Kittleson started teaching a small class of students with learning disabilities and emotional issues at Muskegon Heights last October.
“In the position I was in I was there to deliver academic instruction as well as a stable structured environment in which they could be more successful, but I’m not a trained social worker,” Kittleson said.
At first, there was no social worker provided for a number of kids who were supposed to get those services. Kittleson says some students had severe emotional impairment, lashing out, sometimes violently in his self-contained class that was kept separate from the general student population. Social workers help students cope with those emotions.
The MDE says in February, a parent (the names are redacted in the documents provided) filed a complaint. State investigators found school staff were told to say students didn’t need those services because the district couldn’t provide them.
“This was a real serious vacuum in the program that I was trying to run in my classroom,” Kittleson said.
It wasn’t just social workers that Muskegon Heights was missing. A different report from a separate complaint says special education students were not given speech and language, physical therapy, mobility and other services. It says teachers didn’t get help they needed for kids with autism, or with visual and hearing impairments. Students also lacked instructional materials they needed to make progress under Michigan’s Merit Curriculum.
Marcie Lipsitt filed that second complaint and she’s waiting on results from a third. Lipsitt heard rumors that there wasn’t any speech therapist in the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System (MHPSA).
“I thought ‘if (students) aren’t receiving speech, they’re clearly not receiving other related services’ and I can file a complaint,” Lipsitt said.
As an advocate for special education students based in Southeast Michigan, she frequently files complaints with the state.
"They deserve a free and appropriate public education as the Michigan Constitution requires for all children," Lipsitt said.
“I’m not 'complaint happy.' I’m never happy about filing a complaint. I file them to fix problems for children,” Lipsitt said.
Lipsitt calls the level of noncompliance at Muskegon Heights schools “unspeakable.” She says she tried to contact Mosaica Education, the company that runs the district, before she filed the complaint. She says she didn’t get a response.
No one from Mosaica would agree to an interview for this story. Alena Zachery-Ross, the equivalent of the district’s superintendent, issued this written statement.
“Muskegon Heights Public School Academy is committed to providing a high quality education to all students. The Academy, along with the Muskegon Area ISD (MAISD), would like to get this complaint resolved and have some of the questionable findings and inconsistencies within it addressed to avoid these issues moving forward. MAISD has sent a letter to MDE to express concerns about the complaint and request a meeting to discuss this matter. We are awaiting a response from MDE and we expect that we will hear back soon.”
One of MDE's investigations required the district to send letters home this month to parents whose children didn’t receive these services. MDE will require MHPSA to document contact made with these parents and work with those who “wish to develop a plan that addresses educational loss.” Building principals, service providers, and all special education teachers are to undergo training by September.
A history of special ed problems
To be clear, there’s a long history of problems with Muskegon Heights’ special education program.
Dave Sipka is the superintendent of Muskegon Area Intermediate School District, which has an oversight role in Muskegon Heights.
“Unfortunately in this case when a charter company comes into an existing school district with a lot of history you don’t know all the details and you may only find them out as time goes on,” Sipka said.
Sipka’s staff filed complaints against Muskegon Heights Public Schools, before it was taken over and made into a charter district. In one of those investigations, the state found the problems “so pervasive” that it declared the whole special education program systematically non-compliant. That report came out in April 2012, the same month Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to run the district. By that point MHPS was practically bankrupt.
“It got to the point that (MHPS) was in so much debt that they literally had to pick and choose what they could and couldn’t do,” Sipka said, “Mosaica underestimated the magnitude of the problems that existed previously.”
Lipsitt says the intermediate school district and MDE should have done more to prevent non-compliance from continuing as soon as they knew about violations.
“When I look at this complaint, I look at children who have lost a year of an educational life that no one can give them back. The district can’t give it back. I can’t give it back. The state can’t give it back,” Lispitt said.
Sipka says the solutions are as complicated as the history of problems, and people need to be patient with the process.
“Did we report that to the state immediately? No,” Sipka said, “What we did was try to process that with them first because again this is all new territory for everybody in the state of Michigan – having a charter school district."
“Mosaica needed to have their act together sooner than they did but with that being said, they have done what I would call a remarkable job in trying to give the services to kids that are needed," Sipka said.
Sipka says the company has brought in its national special education director. He says the district has been able to fill some vacant special education positions and brought in contractors to help with other services.
MDE Spokeswoman Jan Ellis says there were about 500 noncompliance issues identified in the state during the 2011-12 school year. She the vast majority of school districts involved implemented changes to come into compliance.
“When there are problems our goal is to get them fixed and identify with the district and the intermediate school district what supports are necessary to make that happen,” Ellis said.
Ellis said it’s difficult to say how this set of complaints stacks up against other districts because “each district is unique.” For example, some district have more active parent groups that are more likely to file complaints than others, Ellis said.
“It’s important that all districts are in compliance with state and federal laws, Ellis said, “This is an issue that’s important and needs to be corrected whenever non-compliance issues are found. And we work very diligently between districts and intermediate school districts to see that these issues are resolved.”
“The first emphasis is on kids, not on institutions,” Sipka said, “You have to realize that sometimes institutions do take a while to get it right and I think Mosaica is headed in that right direction.”
MHPS Emergency Manager Don Weatherspoon and the charter district's board president did not respond to requests for comment on this story.