NEWBURYPORT — It’s been said that parents know their kids best, but in the case of determining whether or not their child needs the extra supports of the special education program, local schools are finding that’s not the case.

In response to high numbers of parent referrals for special education testing that yield non-eligible findings, Superintendent Marc Kerble is sending a message out to the school community urging parents to curb their requests for testing. Instead of making the referral for their kids, he wants them to go through their child’s classroom teacher as a first line of action, which he said triggers a response to intervention (RTI) process that’s more effective in determining eligibility for special education services.

“If there’s no finding for Special Education, then what we have done is invested a tremendous amount of time and energy, testing and meeting, and it’s a resource zapper,” said Kerble. “We should have pretty close to a 100% finding between a referral and eligibility. And when I looked at the stats from last year, we had 69 parent referrals and only 23 were found eligible for special education.”

That means when parents come to the conclusion their child’s difficulties warrant inclusion in the program, they are mistaken 67% of the time. And in the process of coming to that conclusion, Kerble said the schools are spending time and money that could be allocated any number of places.

This year the district came under fire from parents of special education students for its inconsistent services and failure to meet some of the supports outlined in their child’s individualized education program (IEP). An informal audit of the department and its structure, performed by an interim director taking over after Karen Brann resigned from the position, has led to recommendations that are currently being implemented across the board. They include laying out descriptions of services offered in the program, drawing up a firm set of criteria for admission to the program, and creating service grids that determine what kind of help should attach to a student’s IEP.

“We’re trying to be uniform in terms of enter and exit criteria, who gets occupational therapy or speech and language,” said Kerble.

Developing a more constructive method of referral is part and parcel to the overall improvements the district is looking to make. Looking at the figures for this school year, said Kerble, the number of parent referrals that yielded non-eligible findings looks to be growing. A letter sent home to parents is imploring them to utilize the existing RTI system in place in the district, beginning in the classroom.

If a classroom teacher determines a parent request has merit, the request will be brought before an RTI team of teachers and special education staffers that utilize criteria and observation to determine need for services.

“Parents should really work closely with the teacher and go through the referral process because we’re finding when the parents go through the RTI process, and teachers go the RTI team, the eligibility rate is around 72%,” said Kerble. “In other words the schools do a good job, and when they refer the child to special education they’re doing the right thing.”

In recent years the district invested thousands into a retooling of the RTI program, bringing in a specialist to conduct training and implement an effective system or identifying and meeting the needs of the special education population. RTI teams set up to work with teachers on intervention strategies have become a vital resource for teachers in making their own referrals for SPED, and in responding to parent concerns regarding the potential need for services. Going forward, that’s going to be the prescribed method of referral at each of the schools in the district.

“If you’re spending that much time testing and assessing during the day then you have less time offering directed service to students,” said Kerble. “And the time the teacher could take planning and preparing at night, they’re writing out reports or meeting, ultimately for a no finding for Special Education.”

“All I’m asking is for parents to work closer with the classroom teacher and keep a dialogue open and wait for the teacher to go through the RTI process,” said Kerble.

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