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MESD loses State contract to David Douglas

Recently, the Oregon Department of Education awarded its contract for early childhood
services to the David Douglas School District for Multnomah, Wasco and Hood River county school districts over the Multnomah Education Service District, the agency with the contract for more than a decade

HEATHER HILL
THE MID-COUNTY MEMO
David Douglas School District takes over the contract to provide early child services for all of Multnomah, Wasco and Hood River County school districts.

Earl Boyles Elementary school's pre-school program integrates ECSE services with Head Start and other family service programs. Multnomah Early Childhood Program teacher Chris Cvitanich poses with her student, Philip at the former Thompson Elementary School in the Parkrose School District.
Mid-county Memo photos/Tim Curran
David Douglas will continue to use the former Thompson Elementary School throughout the summer. Cvitanich and Occupational Therapist Joni Burt ready four-year-old Chloe-who has a developmental disability-for play and interaction with her peer companions.
On May 14, the Oregon Department of Education awarded the David Douglas School District the contract to provide Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education Services to all eligible families in Multnomah County, Wasco County and the Hood River School District. The announcement came as a surprise to the Multnomah Educational Service District, which, until then, had administered the program, partially out of Parkrose School District's retired Thompson School. “We found out on May 15 that we were not going to get the contract as we have done for 10 years and we were shocked,” said Mark Skolnick, spokesperson for MESD. “The program by MESD has been an excellent program and that is backed up by the evaluations that we have gotten from the ODE so it was our understanding that it wasn't pulled from us for any subpar performance.”

The shift required the organization to quickly jettison the 178 staff members employed in what was their largest program, though David Douglas rehired many, including all four supervisors.

Services resumed July 1.

The fate of MESD's lease on the former Thompson Elementary School-14030 N.E. Sacramento St. in the Russell neighborhood-remains in question. David Douglas has agreed to sublease the program's five pre-school classrooms and field staff offices throughout the summer, but is actively seeking other locations for both. MESD also subleases space in the former school to the Mt. Hood Community College Head Start program, as well as two Columbia Regional programs for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The ODE awards the Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education Services (EI/ECSE) contract, which includes full funding for the program, to the applicant who they determine best demonstrates the capacity to administer it. This year, David Douglas emerged as the most qualified of the three applicants. “David Douglas had a much stronger technical plan for services to children and their families,” said Crystal Greene, the communications director for ODE.

The upset came at a time revived focus on early childhood education at the state level. In 2011, the state senate voted in its bill, SB909, which aspires to create of a unified system of public education from preschool through graduate school. Honing in on the crucial years when a child first enters the education system, the bill called for the establishment of kindergarten-ready benchmarks and improved coordination for early childhood services to ensure that all children start school with the aptitude to learn.

The bill also eliminated the Oregon Commission on Children and Families and transferred the existing program, budget, and staff positions to a newly created Early Learning Council, which, from the outset, was tasked to formulate plans to improve early identification and intervention of at-risk children.

By design, the Early Learning Council will integrate and align services and establish consistent standards, policies, and requirements across all early childhood programs. Eventually, the council will replace county-level commissions for children and families with community-based coordinators of early learning services, referred to as hubs.

“Early childhood hubs are a structural shift in the alignment of early childhood services,” said Skolnick, “they are looking at an education continuum that basically goes birth through age 20. Part of this is to combine early childhood services so they are more related to one another and not in silos with different funding streams and unconnected.”

Barbara Kienle, director of student services for David Douglas School District, saw the awarding of the EI/ECSE services to a school district as a step closer to the new state standards. “We can see a whole alignment with work that is happening at the state level and at the county level for the birth-through-20 initiative and the governor's early learning initiative,” she said. “We just think the school district is able to have seamless services for children birth through 20, especially that transition to school age. MESD had a lot of expertise and focus on early childhood but they didn't have that bridge into school age.

“We are able to bridge that transition to school age and look for alignment with the early childhood system into the school-age system.” In 2011, the David Douglas School District launched a pilot preschool program at the Earl Boyles School facilitated by Early Works, a venture of the Oregon-based Children's Institute. The preschool serves a wide range of students in the district, many living in poverty, some of whom have special needs. Others are identified as having special needs attending the program.

Pre-kindergarten programs help expose developmental and behavioral deficiencies at the outset of a child's classroom experience, before they become potentially disruptive to later, more academically focused classes. Students living in poverty are less likely to attend preschool and often lack a consistent pediatrician or other adults knowledgeable in developmental cues likely to identify early-stage warning signs.

The Early Works program at Earl Boyles promotes family and community involvement by collaborating with other providers for parent-child education classes, a summer literacy program, and home visits, and interventions-similar to those offered by MESD's EI/ECSE program. However, Earl Boyles, as an elementary school, has the potential to more easily integrate and align these early educational programs with the curriculum and expectations of later elementary grades. With the help of the $3.5 million David Douglas District general obligation bond, which the community approved in 2012, the school is expanding the program from one to four preschool classrooms, establishing an Early Learning center available to all eventual David Douglas students in the near future.

As administered by MESD, the Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education Program operated on a referral basis, where a parent, often at the advice of a pediatrician, would seek assistance for a child who had failed to reach age-determined physical or mental benchmarks for development. The child would undergo an evaluation, and MESD staff would assist the family in establishing an individual family service plan (IFSP) designed to raise the child's capabilities.

MESD's EI/ECSE services took place in a variety of locations. Commonly, therapists visited Early Intervention families in their homes, since Early Intervention therapy focuses on children from birth until the age of three. Early Childhood Special Education sessions, for children age three to five, took place at the home, in libraries, in one of the five Thompson preschool classes, at Head Start classes, and other day care centers as selected by the family. All EI/ECSE services are free of charge.

EI/ECSE students display a wide range of developmental disparities, from speech delays to Down syndrome.

Yet the focus of the program has emphasized inclusion over exclusion.

“One of the basic premises of the program is to serve children in their natural environment, so rather than pull a child out to a special-ed classroom, it is preferable to provide supportive services to children of special needs in a milieu that consists of normally developing peers,” said Skolnick. “That was a source of pride for what we have done. We set this up especially so we don't have kids with special needs isolated by themselves; they are always in classrooms with kids who are normally developing and that is a great role model for those kids. It is also an educational experience for the children and families to hopefully gain a better sense of awareness that all kids are different and that just because someone might have a special need that does not mean that they can't be included in a regular education setting.”

The Earl Boyles School employs the same strategy. “Some of our children who are currently being served through MESD for early childhood special education are placed at Earl Boyles and we have been able to build strong connections with those parents and with the school community. As those children transition into kindergarten next year we know them and they have already had a good, solid preschool experience. We hope to be able to replicate that with the cooperation of all of the other districts,” said Kienle.

Though logistical and financial obstacles prevent all special needs children attending early special education sessions at the elementary school they will eventually attend, some schools have eagerly volunteered for the opportunity. “Not every school district will have the space and capacity to take all of their children,” said Kienle. “Some of the kids are in day care situations and Head Start situations that are not in their neighborhood so we want to be sensitive to that.” She added, “But I know Reynolds (School District) has already approached me and said, 'we have several classrooms and we would like to have kids that reside in the Reynolds School District served in our schools,' so we are already planning on doing that for next year.”

David Douglas has convened an early childhood evaluation team to screen children referred to the program within the boundaries of David Douglas, Centennial, Parkrose, Riverdale and Corbett school districts. Portland Public Schools, Reynolds and Gresham-Barlow school districts will conduct their own screenings and evaluations, though concerned parents can access all services through one referral phone number.

Though not all school districts possess the capacity to integrate early childhood services into their buildings, Kienle suggested that other options of cooperation may arise down the road. “Right now we plan to continue the services as they have been implemented in the past. We are keeping the same staffing; we are keeping the same service sites and the same model, but we are going to be working with our partner districts to look at how we serve our students within their school community in a way that there is more alignment with the early childhood services and the school-age services.

“We don't have any specific changes right now but as we work with our partner school districts we are very open to working collaboratively and I'm sure there will be a lot of innovative ideas that come out of the group as we move forward,” Kienle said.

The IFSP drafted for the family upon acceptance into the program serves as a legal document, where whoever administers the program assumes responsibility for completing the services outlined in the plan as designed. “It is called a maintenance of effort which means that if a district provides a certain level of services to a child with special needs they are obligated legally to continue to provide that,” said Skolnick. “There has to be a continuity of services.”

The contract granted the program to David Douglas for one year, with the option to continue for an additional three years.

Skolnick was uncertain whether or not MESD would reapply when the contract expired. “I don't know if we would apply again. It would be a little hard to take a break from the program for a year and then gear the whole thing back up, not to mention that there is a continuity with staff and families that is really critical, so do you really want to move this program around to different organizations every few years?” he asked.

Greene said that ODE “considers consistency along with other factors that contribute to providing the best services to, and outcomes for children and their families. Consistency may or may not be an overriding factor.”

“I think we are going to wait and see what is going to happen with the early childhood hubs and what a good role for us would be,” said Skolnick.

The hub framework to date does not reject the role of educational service districts in favor of more cohesion with school districts, but instead calls for flexibility in determining the assignment of the hubs. The Early Learning Council's February 2013 report to the state legislature described the hubs as “a self-organized consortium (with a lead coordinating agent) or organization that integrates and purchases local supports to impact kindergarten readiness.” The composition of the hubs may be different in different parts of the state, based on “the unique availability and configuration of early learning services, population characteristics and partners in each community.”

The Early Learning Council asserts they will not prescribe geographic boundaries for the hubs, and has so far outlined hub qualifications as: family centric, able to reach the highest risk children, coordinated and transparent financially, accountable and flexible. Future hubs must represent and have the endorsement of the community as well as provide evidence of effective management, coordination and ability to act as a family resource for that region.

Though they stress hubs streamline processes without duplicity, responsibilities for hubs appear to overlap with those granted by the EI/ECSE contract. Performing functions such as screening and assessment; early education; childcare and pre-kindergarten; early intervention/early childhood special education efforts; mental health; respite care; home visiting; family resource management and care coordination, tutors and mentors, and other strategies, according to the report.

While David Douglas's approach closely aligns with the objective to coordinate child services from birth through college, MESD boasts a wider scope. “That is a pretty big shift for a school district, especially a small one like David Douglas,” said Skolnick “ESDs are set up to be a regional provider, everything we do is a co-op, so it will be interesting to see how they will handle that.”

“We're really excited at looking at the alignment and building really strong connections with families,” said Kienle. “By involving school districts we are part of that process in their whole educational experience until they graduate from school so we're just excited about that strong relationship and partnership that we can provide to families."
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