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RSS Exceptional Children Department makes strides in previous year

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ Exceptional Children Department had nothing but good news to share on Monday.

During the regular meeting of the RSS Board of Education, Exceptional Children Director Elizabeth Mitcham said the previous year has been full of adjustments. The department more than 2,000 students and has hundreds of staff members.

Mitcham said the department exists at the district level to help school-based staff implement plans for students with disabilities, enhance their education and monitor federal regulations.

She said most people think about teachers and teacher assistants who are in classrooms with students every day, but the department also has interpreters, behavior technicians and other staff members who work with students.

As of April 1, the district had 2,431 students enrolled in exceptional children programs between 3 and 22 years old. Mitcham said that figure includes some private school students as part of the state’s Project Child Find Program.

The program identifies people up to 21 years old who need special education and other services including evaluation, an individualized education program, family service plan and referrals to other agencies.

Mitcham told the board staff closed with 100% compliance on its April 1 count this year.

“You may be thinking ‘doesn’t that happen every year?'” Mitcham said.

It does not, and the pandemic did not make things easier for local school districts. She said the board approving summer testing allowed the department to count every possible student. The department has also seen some students return from private and home schools.

Board member Jean Kennedy asked why some students have been coming back to the district. Mitcham said having a virtual option and still providing services was one factor. The department also has also been performing outreach.

About 13.25% of the district student population has identified disabilities or are served by the department.

Mitcham spent some time on one important metric in particular: Indicator 11.

The indicator assesses timely placement of child between being referred for possibly having a disability to being placed with services. The law says the department has 90 days to place students. The metric made a jump from 58% of students being placed quickly last February to 85% this March.

The district has an above-average graduation rate for students with disabilities at 69.1%, and the department is trying to lower the number of students not on the diploma pathway.

Mitcham also talked about disproportionality in identification or discipline of students with disabilities. Mitcham said the district had been on the state’s disciplinary list for a few years and was taken off.

“That is a challenge for us, and it means we are no longer disproportionately suspending our students with disabilities,” Mitcham said. “That’s a huge celebration.”

Superintendent Tony Watlington said the metric does not mean the there are not differences in suspension rates between different groups, but the district no longer meet’s the state’s definition.

“We still have some significant work to do there,” Watlington said.

The department also closed a state compliance and monitoring audit that has been open since 2018, resolved all its open evaluations, improved its meeting of compliance deadlines by staff and increased its Medicaid reimbursement by 173%.

Board member Susan Cox said the department deserves appreciation for its work.

“I think it’s fairly rare for us and I think probably a lot of systems to be in 100% compliance,” Cox said. “That is not an easy feat.”

Cox said she ran into an Exceptional Children Department staff member on her way into the meeting, and the employee was glowing about how things have been going for the department.

Board member Dean Hunter said he can sense the passion Mitcham has for what she is doing in a department that has seen a lot of leadership turnover in recent years.

“It looks like a lot of progress has been made,” Hunter said.

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