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Winter 2000 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Placement: The Natural Outcome of the IEP

By Phil Hatlen, Superintendent
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
hatlen_p@tsbvi.edu 

IDEA identifies four processes that are to occur sequentially in serving students with disabilities. First, we must identify and refer. Next, we are to conduct an individualized assessment, in collaboration with parents/guardians. Our third responsibility is to complete an individualized educational program (IEP) for each student. And, finally, we are to determine placement, based on the assessed needs and the educational goals for each child. While there have been efforts to play with this sequence in the name of inclusive education, these IDEA principles have, for the most part, stood the test of time. Of the four processes, the last, placement, is the one that most often challenges the philosophic beliefs of both parents and professionals. In this article, I will be presenting some thoughts and beliefs about placement. I invite readers to respond, and perhaps we can begin a healthy, productive dialog.

The federal regulations written for implementation of IDEA clearly state that students with disabilities are to have available to them a continuum of placement options. Supporting this concept is the Policy Guidance on Education of Students with Visual Impairments, prepared and disseminated by the U.S. Department of Education. More recently, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) has published a book entitled, Blind and Visually Impaired Students: Educational Service Guidelines, intended to provide special education administrators with directions in providing educational services for blind and visually impaired students. This publication also stresses the absolute necessity of having an array of placement options in order to address the individual needs of students.

It is clear that, if blind and visually impaired students are to receive a "Free and Appropriate Public Education" (FAPE) in the "Least Restrictive Environment" (LRE), all students must have available to them several placement options. One of these options should then be able to be "customized" in order to meet the specific needs of a particular student. To provide any less would be legally, ethically, and morally wrong.

I have been stating in recent years (having no documentation or data to back it up) that probably 90% of the blind and visually impaired students in the U.S. have only two placement options: the services of an itinerant teacher or the school for the blind. (There seem to be very few resource rooms or self-contained classrooms for blind and visually impaired children left in the country.) Expansion beyond these two options seems to depend on the creativity and flexibility of both the local school district and the school for the blind. I will expand more on this later.

THE ROLE OF A RESPONSIBLE AND CREATIVE SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND

There is no consensus among leaders of schools for the blind in the U.S. concerning the role these schools should have as we enter into a new century. As you will see, I have rather strong opinions on this subject, and I know many of my colleagues agree with me, for they have helped me mold my beliefs. I also know that there are leaders who are my colleagues who believe that, as inclusive education begins to show cracks and fails a growing number of students, blind and visually impaired children with high academic potential will be coming back to schools for the blind in droves. I reject this latter position, primarily because inclusion, as practiced in education for the visually impaired for the past 50 years, has worked more often than not, and several generations of highly successful visually impaired adults in our communities are living and walking examples of the success of inclusive education. I also believe that parents who have the choice of keeping their children in the home, in the community, and attending a neighborhood school, will almost always opt for this over sending their children far away to a residential school.

As much as many of my colleagues would like to live in a "black and white" professional world, I'm afraid that the only way we will succeed in providing individualized instruction to children is to live in a "gray world". I find myself very comfortable in a gray world, but I know, and Myers/Briggs results verify, that there are many of us for whom gray is terribly uncomfortable. Thus, my description of what you should expect from a school for the blind is continually being adjusted, is continually shifting, and must be allowed the flexibility to answer to the needs of today and tomorrow.

I will address this to teachers, parents, and administrators in Texas. If those of you from other states and countries find value in this, I will be pleased. But my purpose is best served if I specify as my audience my fellow Texans.

The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) is committed to providing services, as needed, to all blind and visually impaired students in the state. For the more than 6,500 students in Texas that are identified as visually impaired, TSBVI must provide a wide variety of services. Colleagues in education service centers and in local school districts and parents have guided us in determining the services we need to provide.

TSBVI believes that blind and visually impaired students should be educated, to the greatest extent possible, in their local school districts. We believe that quality services at the local level require tremendous commitment from school districts, and if that commitment doesn't exist, services provided might be less than desirable.

SERVICES OFFERED BY THE TEXAS SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND AND VISUALLY IMPAIRED

On-Campus Services

TSBVI must be prepared to meet the needs of the following students with quality education and residential services:

  1. Blind or visually impaired students with additional disabilities. TSBVI provides a variety of educational settings for these students, always in small classes with excellent adult/student ratios. Often these students are in need of highly specialized approaches to communication, mobility, social interaction, and understanding and reacting appropriately to their environments. Over the past several decades, TSBVI has become very adept and creative in serving this population, always taking into consideration the environment in which a child might live as an adult. TSBVI provides extensive community-based instruction in natural environments for these students.
  2. Despite a recent intensive and successful effort to increase the number of highly specialized teachers for blind and visually impaired students in Texas, there are numerous areas of this state where providing support to the classroom teacher with a qualified teacher of the visually impaired remains a serious problem. Students residing in these geographic areas might need to come to TSBVI for a regular education program. Thus, for the students, TSBVI has a responsibility to continue to offer an educational program that is similar to what is provided in a local school.
  3. Sudden vision loss may require a change in learning media for a student. It may impact the child in other profound ways, also. Some students who move from reading normal-sized print to large print, or from print to braille, benefit greatly from a "time-out year", an opportunity to learn new basic skills for accessing learning. TSBVI must be ready to offer an intensive year of instruction in reading and writing, auditory learning, orientation and mobility, independent living skills, social interaction skills, etc. These students may benefit from a less strenuous academic learning time, and TSBVI can adjust its curriculum to accommodate this need.
  4. There are students who succeed academically in all areas with the exception of one or two. For example, it is not unusual for a blind or visually impaired student to excel in language arts, in history, etc., and have serious learning issues in mathematics and science. In other cases, the student might benefit greatly from intensive instruction offered at TSBVI in physical education, in orientation and mobility, in fine arts, including music, etc. TSBVI is capable and eager to provide specific instructional programs to students for one or more semesters.
  5. As students approach high school graduation, there may be a need to provide intensive vocational education instruction for some. TSBVI must (and does) have the flexibility to admit students in their late teens for an educational program that stresses work readiness.
  6. There are students who need the experience of attending TSBVI for less definable reasons. Sometimes students can experience real (not artificial) success at TSBVI beyond what they can achieve in their local schools. Many students who are referred to TSBVI, are described by their parents and their local school as having low self-esteem. Success, in athletics, in music, in drama, and in social interaction, often happens first on the campus of TSBVI.
  7. Recognition of the "Expanded Core Curriculum" for blind and visually impaired students has challenged both schools for the blind and local schools as they explore ways in which these needs can be met concurrently with the regular core curriculum. As local schools face the real possibility that overworked itinerant teachers have little, if any, time to address the expanded core curriculum, TSBVI must step forward and offer school districts options for meeting these needs. This is not to suggest that local schools should consider themselves "off the hook" for the expanded core curriculum. But they and TSBVI must work together to assure that all Texas students receive appropriate instruction in all areas of this curriculum. In some instances, one or two years at TSBVI will be what is necessary for meeting these needs, and we are ready to, and capable of, providing this instruction.
  8. TSBVI is expanding its Special Programs that will be offered on campus. For many years, an extensive summer program has been a part of the TSBVI services, and in 1999 - 2000 we will be offering similar short-term courses during the school year. Summers at TSBVI have offered blind and visually impaired students an opportunity to meet and become friends with other visually impaired age-mates. They experience an environment where perhaps the pressure of going to school with sighted peers is lessened, and visual impairment, as one characteristic of the child, is celebrated. Certainly skills are learned during summer programs, particularly in the area of vocational education. But these are, for the most part, enrichment opportunities for students, and no attempt at meeting IEP goals is made.

Perhaps a stronger emphasis in the expanded core curriculum will mean a partial change in the TSBVI summer program. Indeed, if local districts call on us to meet curricular needs in areas such as social skills, living skills, technology, etc., we will respond to such a request. We have both the facilities and an expert staff to provide intensive instruction in the expanded core curriculum. TSBVI expects that short-term programs during the school year will also address the expanded core curriculum.

As is evident, TSBVI is capable and ready to meet the individual needs of blind and visually impaired students in Texas by providing a variety of on-campus instructional opportunities. We are ready to address specific needs for an individual student, as identified by parents and the local school district. Our promise to local schools and parents/guardians is that we will work intently on the needs that caused the referral of the student, so that the student can return home and to the neighborhood school as soon as possible.

Off-Campus Services

TSBVI is responsible in some manner for the education of all blind and visually impaired students in Texas. This is a legislative mandate, and it is a responsibility we assume when we consider ourselves as the "hub" of education for blind and visually impaired students in the state. As I have described, we meet that mandate by providing a wide array of on-campus educational opportunities for Texas students. But what about the thousands of students who never set foot on our campus?

Of all the services provided by TSBVI, our Outreach Department is probably best known statewide. We have been fortunate in assembling a gifted, highly trained and experienced professional staff to serve in our Outreach Department. What began as a technical assistance program for teachers, administrators, and parents, has grown to include many other components that impact on the education of all children in the state. Among these are:

  1. Offering statewide staff development for professionals serving blind and visually impaired students.
  2. Providing a process by which local districts can evaluate the quality of their programs for blind and visually impaired students (the Quality Programs for Visually Impaired or QPVI process).
  3. Administering statewide registration of all blind and visually impaired students.
  4. Working with universities in personnel preparation.
  5. Offering conferences and workshops for both professionals and parents.
  6. Providing consultation services for infant and preschool blind and visually impaired children and their families, including those who are deafblind.
  7. Providing a variety of services for deafblind students, including technical assistance to families and schools, parent counseling, assistance in transition planning, and training of staff to work with students in local schools.

Two additional off-campus services that must be highlighted are:

  1. Curriculum development. TSBVI develops curriculum guides for its on-campus students, then publishes them to make them available throughout Texas and the world. This is a responsibility that TSBVI accepts as a part of being a center for learning for blind and visually impaired students.
  2. The TSBVI website has also become known worldwide, and is acclaimed as having timely and pertinent information for parents and professionals.

Off-campus services do not exactly fit the term "placement" as it applies to schools for the blind. However, I would contend that the education of most, if not all, blind and visually impaired students in Texas is a shared responsibility between the local district and TSBVI. Thus, in a way, all students have a "joint placement" if we consider the term to mean services, and not a place.

QUALITIES NECESSARY IN LOCAL SCHOOL SERVICES

There is no more treacherous ground on which a superintendent of a school for the blind can travel than the topic of educational placement for blind and visually impaired students. If we celebrate our accomplishments and share our expertise, some may consider us recruiting. If we build a wall around us and shut ourselves off from the rest of education and the community, we will soon die. So, what should we do? I have taken the position that blind and visually impaired students in Texas should be provided appropriate educational services in their local schools, in their home communities. They should be able to live at home with their families, and receive an education that is as good as that provided to their sighted age-mates. In the few cases where this might not be possible, the school for the blind is ready and eager to serve students. If there are areas of learning that might be better achieved at the school for the blind, we are prepared to provide intensive, specific short-term programs. Thus, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) serves in a collaborative and cooperative manner with local school districts, meeting needs as mutually determined by the local school, the parents, and TSBVI.

I have become rather glib in describing this highly desirable relationship with local districts, assuring parents, teachers, and administrators that we stand ready to help when called upon. However, when I shed my role as Superintendent of TSBVI, and consider what I really am, an educator for blind and visually impaired students, I am challenged to describe what I consider to be an appropriate education for blind and visually impaired students in their local schools. I am vain enough to believe that I can be an unbiased evaluator of educational placement, one who can keep the playing field level for all placement options. If I can keep the needs of a child as the most critical ingredient in making a placement decision, then I am able to see beyond the assets and liabilities of specific placements.

So, here we go on dangerous ground. I'm going to describe to you the conditions that must exist at the local school district level if blind and visually impaired students are to receive an appropriate education. Education of the highest quality can be available in local schools under the following conditions:

  1. The local school board, the school administration, the school staff, and the parents solidly support blind and visually impaired students in their schools. This support must be more than philosophic; it must be financial. Blind and visually impaired children are among the most expensive students to include in general education. If they do not receive what they require for specialized instructional support, for related services, for adapted instructional materials, and for very specialized equipment, then the local placement will be less desirable.
  2. Placement decisions made by the local IEP committee must be based on the individual needs of each student, as determined by a comprehensive assessment, not by philosophic beliefs or current educational trends.
  3. Every blind and visually impaired student must have available to her/him a highly trained educational specialist. This teacher must serve multiple roles. She/he must be a materials provider, a consultant, a counselor, an advocate, and a teacher. This latter role is crucial. If the specialist teacher for the visually impaired is relegated to the role of academic tutor, or a case manager, then the child will not be well-served, and the placement may not be appropriate. The specialist must have time to teach, or the student's learning is at risk.
  4. All necessary related services personnel must be available to the student, based on needs identified in the comprehensive assessment. Especially important is the availability of appropriate orientation and mobility services. Although orientation and mobility instruction is considered a related service in IDEA, it is recognized as a necessary area of instruction for blind and visually impaired students. If a student is determined to need a speech and language specialist, or a physical therapist, or any other approved related service, this needs to be provided. Under the best circumstances, the related services personnel will be experienced in providing services to blind and visually impaired students.
  5. The local school district, including its Board and administration, must acknowledge the absolute necessity of providing the blind or visually impaired student the expanded core curriculum. This must be a district-wide commitment, because in many school districts, implementation of the expanded core curriculum will require creative thinking and adjustments to the manner in which the time of the specialist teacher of the visually impaired is used. To ignore the expanded core curriculum is not acceptable, and will result in an inappropriate placement.

I consider these my non-negotiables in supporting local school district placements for blind and visually impaired students. Perhaps some of you will want to take issue with these. Perhaps others would like to add additional points. I welcome dialog on this topic.


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