Houston ISD’s administration rolled out a long-anticipated list of fixes to its special education programs Thursday, unveiling plans aimed at rectifying the district’s persistent problems with serving students with disabilities.

In a presentation to HISD’s state-appointed school board, Superintendent Mike Miles said the district plans to improve disability evaluation processes, bolster parent engagement and reduce achievement gaps between students receiving special education services and their peers. The steps are outlined in a new Special Education Action Plan.

HISD expects to reach those goals by training more employees on identifying and serving students with disabilities, including general education teachers, principals and office staff. Only special education employees completed the training in previous years, said Stacy Venson, HISD’s deputy chief of special education.

The district also released documents this week showing 20 percent of principals’ annual evaluation — which is linked to school leader merit pay — will be tied to special education metrics. At the high school level, principals who earn top evaluation marks stand to make $65,000 more annually than principals who receive the lowest ratings, according to a draft plan.

And in coming weeks, HISD will consider boosting special educator pay next school year under the new plan to attract and retain top talent.

Miles said the process will likely take time, given the state of HISD’s special education department. The district has struggled for more than a decade with well-documented special education problems, and it remains off-track on several key improvement targets, according to records obtained by the Houston Landing in September.

“There’s no magic pill,” Miles said. “This is a big ship that we’re going to have to turn. It’s going to take more than a year to do that. But we have the (special education) department in good hands and things are already moving in the right direction.”

While HISD’s board appeared supportive of Miles’ plans, family complaints and staffing vacancies from the first several weeks of school spurred pointed questioning Thursday from board members, who have rarely pushed back on Miles’ vision for overhauling the district.

Board member Angela Lemond Flowers said some parents of students with disabilities have reported that their children are struggling to keep up with the fast-paced lessons at the 85 schools overhauled under Miles’ “New Education System.” Flowers described the issue as “the elephant in the room.”

“What you haven’t spoken to, that we’ve gotten a lot of feedback about, is the (special education) students in the NES classrooms,” Flowers said. “Can you talk to us about either how you’re assessing how that’s going, or plans to make sure that those students are being served? Because we’re getting feedback that they’re not.”

Miles refuted the “perception” that some students with disabilities are not getting their needs met, arguing that all students are receiving the accommodations laid out in their learning plans.

Board members Janette Garza Lindner and Adam Rivon also pressed the administration on staffing gaps, including 37 schools that remain without speech therapists. The speech pathologist positions have been difficult to hire for, Benson said, which might require turning to teletherapy providers to fill some gaps.

Board member Michelle Cruz Arnold, meanwhile, asked whether parents had been consulted in the creation of the new plans. Venson said she had met with one parent group to date. 

Venson reported to the board that HISD has at least one certified special education teacher at each campus, and schools have maintained 100 percent compliance on the timelines for students’ initial disability evaluations.

HISD parent Veronica Cohetero, who has three children with autism receiving special education services, said her pre-kindergarten son has not been receiving the speech pathology sessions to which he is entitled at Benavidez Elementary School. In addition, Cohetero said she is still waiting on dyslexia testing for her middle child at The School at St. George Place, where staff took all of last year to meet with her about a learning plan. 

Cohetero said she has raised her concerns to board members and her division superintendent, but has yet to see the situations resolved.

“It’s a wonderful school, but the special ed department sucks,” Cohetero said of St. George Place, an A-rated campus near the Galleria. “Last year, my son lost a whole year of being able to be in regular ed classes a bit more.”

The new Action Plan includes several improvement targets for how schools engage with the families of special education students, including holding timely parent meetings and responding within a week to complaints submitted through an online portal.

Miles originally targeted releasing the plan Sept. 1, according to an internal HISD document obtained by the Landing. The district will track progress toward its goals outlined in the plan over the course of the school year, Miles said.

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Asher Lehrer-Small is a K-12 education reporter for the Houston Landing. He previously spent three years covering schools for The 74 where he was recognized by the Education Writers Association as one...