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Regional Planning for Students with Visual Impairments

by Marty Murrell, Program Administrator

Component for Students with Visual Impairments, Texas Education Agency

How can we best ensure that children with visual impairments throughout Texas have access to all of the special services they need? How can we make sure that students receive the services so that they will be able to participate and progress in the general curriculum? So they will be employable and live independent adult lives? This is an incredible challenge since Texas is such a diverse state. There are huge metropolitan areas, as well as isolated, small, rural towns, and everything in between. Districts are "independent" and regions are unique in population, geography, culture, and economy. Can any one plan or strategy work for all of Texas?

When faced with the dilemma of how to implement the laws, rules, and regulations, related to special education for students with visual impairments, the Texas Education Agency brought together stakeholders (professionals and parents) from around the state to provide advice. Their recommendation was "Regional Planning."

The state is divided into twenty educational regions, each with an educational service center (ESC). The Agency, following the stakeholder group's recommendations, now requires each ESC to develop a Regional Plan for Students with Visual Impairments. The plan has two major goals. The first is to ensure comprehensive services are available. The second is to ensure student achievement in both academic and compensatory skill areas. (Compensatory skills include braille, orientation and mobility, independent living skills, recreational and leisure skills, self-advocacy, vision efficiency, adaptive technology, etc.)

The ESC is the catalyst for the planning process. The process varies from center to center, reflecting the uniqueness of each region, but there are several standards that all must follow. First, the plan must be based on an assessment of what is needed in the region. This information is usually gathered from: 1) formal and informal surveys of students, parents, teachers, administrators, etc.; 2) meetings to identify and prioritize needs; 3) data from student assessments; 4) demographic data; 5) monitoring results; and 6) results of program evaluations.

Second, the planning process must be a collaborative one that involves a wide variety of stakeholders. These must include district personnel, service center staff, parents, and Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind) staff. Typically, the vision teachers, orientation and mobility specialists, and special education directors from both the districts and the service center are involved. Some regions have a single parent representative; others may use parent groups. Some regions include students, regular educators and administrators, and other related service personnel. Some even invite participants from related agencies such as the Lighthouse for the Blind. Usually, there is opportunity for global input from many individuals, with a small group or individual actually writing the plan. Then the plan goes back to the larger group for approval.

The third requirement is that each plan must address the following 14 areas:

The last requirement is that the plan must provide a system to determine if the major two goals are met. This is particularly critical for the goal of student achievement. If there is data to demonstrate that children in the region are achieving academically as well as in the areas which are necessary to compensate for a visual loss, then it would seem logical to believe that needed comprehensive services are available. If the data does not indicate appropriate levels of achievement, then the plan should be revised so that the goal can be met.

The plan usually indicates the overall plan for service delivery in the region. Then there are objectives and activities identified. The plan typically will state who is responsible for the various activities, the timeliness for completing them, and how the success of the activity will be measured. The specific format of the plan will vary from region to region.

One of the critical aspects of the plan is to determine how to maximize the resources of the region and if necessary, increase them. Plans usually indicate how funding will occur. One fund source that can be used to supplement local district and ESC funds is State Supplemental Visually Impaired (SSVI) funds. This is a special fund, set aside by the Texas legislature, to be used to meet the unique needs of students with visual impairments. The total amount of money is $6,005,267. Each service center receives an amount based on a formula that considers the number of students with visual impairments, and the severity of the visual loss. These funds are used, first, to pay for one vision consultant position at each ESC. (Each center, by rule, must have at least one certified vision teacher on staff.) The regional plan determines how the remaining money is spent.

IDEA-B VI funds are another special source of funding. The Texas Education Agency provides $50,000 to each ESC to be used for special short-term projects unique to the needs of students with visual impairments. The regional plan also determines how these funds will be spent. Examples include regional summer camps for independent living skills, adaptive technology, and teacher preparation programs.

What is the role of parents in the regional planning process? Of course, the ability of districts to meet the goals of the regional plan is highly dependent on the successful collaboration between the staff and parents. Therefore, parent input is critical to the planning process. Service centers may use a variety of strategies to solicit parent input. If surveys are sent, more responses returned means better planning data. Often districts will nominate parents to serve on a variety of committees that are a part of the process. Or, ESCs will seek volunteers who will have the time to commit to this very important activity.

If you are not sure how the regional planning process works in your region, you may contact the vision consultant at the ESC to find out. Ask whom you should contact if you wish to become involved, or if you have suggestions that you feel should be addressed in the plan. In addition, when the plan is completed, feel free to ask for a copy so that you will have a better understanding of the resources that are available in the region.

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from Summer 1998 issue