Calhoun Intermediate School District Meets Students' Needs with Illuminate Special Education
“Educational leaders for special needs students believe in every child’s potential,” said Ann Walton, Planner/Monitor for Special Education for Calhoun Intermediate School District in Michigan. “Complying with federal and state mandates for the least restrictive environment is critical for meeting these students’ individual needs and making sure they are able to develop their abilities fully.”
The State of Michigan requires that school districts provide a free, appropriate public education for special needs children, from birth to 26 years of age. The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is at the core of providing a continuum of services to meet each student’s needs. Along with the IEP, a full and effective special education program involves focused monitoring, timely completion of Medicaid reporting, and progress monitoring.
Tracking all of the information for special needs students and meeting reporting requirements for the state can be daunting. Walton began brainstorming a new way to create IEPs that were complete and compliant. “I wanted a dynamic flow, a system smart enough to guide a user through the process.”
Her inspiration resulted in a new collaboration between Calhoun ISD and Illuminate. Together they developed Illuminate Special Education, a web-based data management system that simplifies the special education processes and regulations, while ensuring speed and compliance. The IEP generator is “smart” and prompts users to create a compliant IEP.
Recently the Michigan Department of Education audited two of Calhoun’s districts for IEPs and their Review of Existing Evaluation Data (REED), and they both passed the compliance test with flying colors.
“Through our partnership with Illuminate, we’ve created a system that’s not only very technologically savvy, but also very compliant with state and federal requirements,” said Walton.
Meeting the needs of 3,900 special education students
Calhoun ISD provides educational services and support to 13 districts and four public school academies. Its Special Education Department serves more than 3,900 students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Highly trained staff provides a continuum of services for children from birth to 26 years of age who qualify for special education programs.
Like all states, Michigan needs to comply with the federal government’s definition of the “least restricted environment.” There has been a big push in Michigan to get approval for a state plan working towards having 80 percent of special needs students spending more than 80 percent of their time in general education settings. Current guidelines state that 63 percent of these students should spend 80 percent of their time in regular classrooms. It’s a challenging goal.
A vision to create a dynamic flow
Districts in Michigan also need to comply with federal and state requirements for both IEPs and their Review of Existing Evaluation Data (REED). Before the Illuminate system, Calhoun ISD special education teachers and providers were using paper or their computers to track all of this data, and hopefully create compliant evaluations and IEPs. “Every time there was a change in state requirements, it took lots of training time for special education staff members to make sure they understood all the changes,” said Walton.
In 2006, the idea of creating an IEP system with a dynamic flow came to Walton. Her overall goals for a system included keeping on top of all required tracking and reporting in a timely fashion, making sure IEPs were compliant, and providing an easy way to update and maintain student data. She also wanted reporting capabilities and information on which teachers and providers could base enhanced instruction.
This was a tall order, but Walton began the search for a company that might have a package that would deliver on all of her goals. Although she didn’t find the package she envisioned, she found that Illuminate was willing to try something that had never been done before.
So the partnership began. Calhoun ISD provided the “intellectual capital” and Illuminate the development and production. This collaboration allowed educators, rather than programmers in isolation, to play a critical role in the system’s design, features, and functionality. After one and a half years, they rolled out a beta version. The districts began using Illuminate Special Education in 2007, and since then, they’ve continued to develop and improve on it.
A full-featured solution for all users
“We’ve built a system that helps special education providers create compliant IEPs,” said Walton. “The law and requirements are built in and users just need to answer questions and input the information. Even users who balked at first have now turned 180 degrees and can’t imagine living without it.”
The secure, web-based system covers all aspects of data management, including the referral and evaluation processes, IEPs, Medicaid billing, and management of student demographic data. Currently 150 staff members use the system on a consistent, daily basis. Administrators use it to track progress, as do those in the district who have to report to the state. Other users include special education teachers, speech and language pathologists, social workers, school psychologists, nurses, physical therapists, personal care providers, and teacher assistants.
A process made easy
Once it’s determined that a student is eligible for special needs status, the Illuminate Special Education system begins to track information. The system can interface with any Student Information System, so it’s easy to pull in that data directly into the Special Education system to have all the information in one place. Once an IEP is published, all data moves to the student module and it includes all historical and current data.
IEP creation is made easy with a process-driven approach that meets compliance and accountability requirements at each step. Far more comprehensive than a traditional form-fill system, it dramatically reduces the time required to plan and track student performance.
Special education providers work through a dashboard that is customized for them, according to their role. For example, special education teachers only see their case loads while principals can look at all data for their schools.
The system also offers at-a-glance reports so that staff members can quickly view their information, like which IEPs will be due in the upcoming 30-day period.
“Staff appreciates these tools since they help them to manage their caseloads and to know what steps to take to be compliant,” said Walton.
Ongoing development to meet changing needs
“I’m not sure we’ll ever be done with the development of the system,” said Walton. “It will continue to evolve and grow as our needs change.”
Many ideas for ongoing development come from the Illuminate User Group for Calhoun ISD. Once per month Illuminate users in the districts come together to discuss potential changes that are then shared with programmers.
“When staff members suggest ideas for streamlining, the system is flexible enough to integrate enhancements,” said Walton.
Speech and Language Pathologist Toni Willis is a member of the Illuminate User Group and finds the group to be very helpful. In addition to making suggestions for changes to the system, they’re able to try out major new upgrades before they go live so that they can work out some of the bugs.
“We’re also the first ones to get valuable information about the system, like upgrades or changes, allowing me to go back to my peers and let them know what is coming,” said Willis.
“This has become a very powerful group, and they have sold this system and company above every other vendor,” said Walton.
Becoming more efficient and collaborative
Since implementing the system, staff members have been able to become more efficient, as it’s reduced the hours that they need to spend tracking students.
“They now have an end-to-end tool to help them maintain all the pieces of the process, so it’s saving them time,” said Walton. “They also see how all of the pieces connect in a way they weren’t able to before. They’re able to be more compliant because they understand the overall process more fully.”
The system has also made collaboration more crucial between all providers. Before, sometimes there were contradictions in an IEP. Now it’s essential to have team goals, such as one goal for language for the classroom teacher and the speech pathologist.
A speech and language pathologist stays organized
Speech and Language Pathologist Willis works with students from age three up through grade 12 in the Pennfield Schools. With 65 children in her caseload, she keeps very busy and needs all the help she can get to stay on top of reporting requirements. She uses the Illuminate system to create IEPs, fill out progress reports, and to complete Medicaid billing.
“The system keeps me organized,” said Willis. “It also helps me to write IEPs that are accurate and more compliant. It steps you through the process so I know I’m filling things in correctly. And I’m never late!”
A special education teacher saves time and improves instruction
Erin Lewandowski, a K-5 special education resource teacher for Pennfield Schools, teaches students with learning disabilities, cognitive impairments, ASD, and other health impairments. She works with six groups throughout the day. She also co-teaches a fourth-grade math class with a general education teacher. All of her students are integrated into regular classrooms.
She uses Illuminate to create IEPs and to do Medicaid billing for some students. She’s able to monitor her caseload and check on dates when IEPs and re-evaluations are due.
“I really like the system,” said Lewandowski. “It makes it so easy to write IEPs because everything you need is right there. I know I won’t miss important information.”
At any moment, she can access information on her caseload and get a picture of all her students right at that moment. She regularly checks her caseloads, prints snapshots, checks eligibilities, and watches for when IEPs and evaluations are due.
Progress reports help her to see what is going well or not so well, and to adjust the focus of her instruction to better meet student needs. A recently added question in her IEPs about extended year opportunities made her think about a student who would benefit from additional help over the summer.
More participation with general education teachers and parents
Special education teachers and providers can use a projector or hard copies to share the Illuminate system with general education teachers and parents. Doing so helps everyone to see what’s being proposed and to understand all of the steps of the IEP process.
“These meetings now encourage more openness and more powerful conversations,” said Walton. “Parents feel like they’re a partner in the decision-making process. This is important to them. The importance of family participation is recognized by the state of Michigan and is part of the monitoring process.”
The students win in the end
Walton has observed that, because staff members are now able to develop more compliant IEPs, they’re able to offer even better instruction to their special needs students.
In the end, it’s all about making sure that special education students’ needs are being met. “We want to ensure we’re not violating the students’ rights, that we’re being compliant with federal and state requirements,” said Walton. “With Illuminate Special Education, we have a much clearer understanding of all the requirements and how to meet them every step of the way.”