March 9, 2005 – "They are making progress down there, but they still have a long way to go," Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said from Washington D.C. Wednesday after a week-long audit conducted by his department of V.I. Special Education Programs and Rehabilitative Services.
As limited as that praise may be, it stands in sharp contrast to a report heard by the V.I. Board of Education earlier this week concerning the state of the overall education department. The federal department is calling for a third party to oversee federal funds it receives.(See "USDOE Calls For Trustee to Manage Federal Funds").
Neither Bradshaw or Maral Taylor, who headed the team of four federal officials who conducted the audit, were willing to give many details. A full report is expected within a month or two.
However, Noreen Michael, commissioner of education, did send out a press release last week saying that she was "especially pleased" with the audit.
The release said the audit indicated "there has been tremendous improvement in all areas of the special conditions. Some of the special conditions date back to 1999 when the Department of Education went into a compliance agreement with the Office of Special Education."
Carrie Johns, acting director for the V.I. Special Education Department, mentioned Tuesday two areas that had improved since the territory department was found lacking five years ago.
Five years ago federal officials found many special education students had their education interrupted because there was no transportation. Johns said then the special education department had less than eight busses, but now it has 16.
According to the press release, the department also now routinely conducts spot checks relative to arrival and departure times of the buses.
Michael said "The documentation gathered from these spot checks, clearly demonstrates greater system accountability and ensures that students are both at school on time and remain there for a full day of instruction."
Also showing improvement, according to Johns, is the back log of initial evaluations of youngsters who possibly need the services of special education.
Back in 1999 there were 400 students waiting for evaluations, now, according to Johns, there are only 57 youngsters waiting for evaluations in the St. Thomas/St. John District and 17 in St. Croix. She said that was not a real back log because the department has a certain number of days to evaluate youngsters after receiving notification.
Michael stated, "We have also made significant gains in terms of the related services area which include transportation and speech therapy services. Because of this, there has not been the need for as much compensatory services as we have needed to provide in the past."
She added, "Additionally, we have developed a reliable group of substitute teachers who, in the event a special education teacher is on leave or resigns, are able to continue providing services with no break in continuity. This measure has tremendously increased the number of instructional days for special education students."
According to Michael, the federal team made some recommendation that the V.I. department will be working on during the next grading period.
Those recommendation include:
– Completing timely initial and triennial evaluations.
– Facilitating the smooth transition between the Department of Health's Birth to Three Program to preschool programs.
– Ensuring that students receive a full day of instruction.
The federal department of education gives the V.I. special education department about $8 million a year, according to John.
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