Laws require every school in the United States offering a special education program to file complex reports that document compliance with state and federal regulations. With technology, compliance becomes easier and more efficient for everyone, so educators and administrators can instead focus on helping students learn in the best environment.
While compliance can be complex, the Los Angeles Unified School District serves as a good model for managing the process — given its size and scope. As the only software developer in a staff of 21 employees in the Special Education Compliance Department, technology helps me and the entire department be more productive and helpful to schools in our district.
The Los Angeles Unified School district includes nearly 900 individual schools, serving thousands of special education students. Each year, the Special Education Compliance Department reviews the compliance of approximately 200 schools in the district. This process requires teachers and administrators to compile a great deal of information — the exact details of which can change from year to year. We rely on FileMaker Pro database software to help manage the volume of data, and create a variety of reports for many different groups, each with their own requirements. Plus, database software allows us to quickly create new data collection tools as regulations, requirements and reporting needs change over time. Sometimes we have to add components to a live database, right in the middle of the review process!
Naturally, our role is not limited to reporting and monitoring. In fact, monitoring is only one of several ways we help individual schools with compliance requirements. We also provide education and support through training modules, workshops, and presentations related to compliance. Because we believe that compliance should flow naturally from the day-to-day activities at the school, we’ve even designed the review process itself to be a teaching tool for compliance practices by requiring two key staff members from the school to participate as team members. By the end of the review, these participants are usually planning ways to share what they’ve learned with their peers. We use PowerPoint slide shows, both in person and web-based, and html-based presentations, typically with a voice over. We routinely participate in LAUSD’s Academy for new special education administrators, both in consultation and actively training the administrators. In addition, we visit and advise schools, outside of the review process, on best practices and procedures, and respond to specific questions about specific cases. We also help write and review policy and procedure reference guides issued to the schools.
But without the help of database software, the important task of compliance reporting would be extremely difficult. Teachers and administrators on the review team have to compile information on IEP’s (Individualized Education Programs) for each student, parent-teacher discussions, and scheduling. The compliance process requires that all this information not only be accurate, but also up-to-date and complete. When we review the 200 schools each year, we visit each of them for an audit of their reports and documents. The auditing takes one or two days, but for very large schools it may take three days. On these visits, we examine original documents, interview teachers and parents, check on the implementation of services, and monitor the actual classroom settings. All the data is immediately entered into a data base program to generate a formula-driven report that is shared with the school at the end of the review process. This report includes all of the actions that the school needs to take to demonstrate compliance. Each year, we gather close to 200,000 data points, all of it entered during the site reviews. Without this technology, schools might have to wait several days for a report, which would require a return visit.
Collecting and organizing this volume of data is only part of the challenge. Once we have it in the database, we have to create a variety of reports — for the School Board, the state, and the independent monitor.
With FileMaker Pro database software, reporting on information is as easy as collecting it. We have standard reports we use for compliance, but also create new reports each year, as well custom reports we create on-the-fly, based on individual requests. A good example of this is through the use of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Since much of the data gathered in the field is statistical, spreadsheets become critical for analysis. Further, specific data sets must be sent to the units that will be responsible for evaluating them and identifying systemic issues within a given discipline or regional area.
FileMaker Pro 8 database software now includes an Excel Maker feature that allows me to create and send Excel spreadsheets to managers at the push of one button. And relationship graph features allows me to demonstrate the underlying relationships between program elements to my peers in the department, which in turn allows them to refine the processes further each year. And we hope that we will soon be using the PDF Maker to publish reports.
Special Education programs are about creating individual plans that are designed to deliver an educational benefit to each student that can’t be provided in the general education program alone. With technology, we are able to make the process of ensuring compliance more efficient for everyone, so we can concentrate efforts where they matter most — on the students themselves.