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Needs analysis helps modernize special education

Sponsor: Spectrum K12 School Solutions

For years special education providers in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District in northern California operated under a loosely defined, decentralized system of data management. Teachers used different versions of the same student information forms. Individual Education Plans were kept in folders at school sites, unavailable to the vast majority of the district's special education team.

When in doubt, teachers and specialists would just "make do," says Kelly Calhoun, the director of educational technology and information systems. "Every process they did was manual and paper-based in nature," Calhoun says.

The system prevented the efficient delivery of services to students in the district, which is composed of the Sacramento suburbs of Folsom and Rancho Cordova and includes 2,400 special education students among a total enrollment of more than 18,000. Administrators knew the system was rife with problems that made compliance with federal and state mandates something of a coin toss.

"The more I learned how the district special education processes worked, the more amazed I was that we'd made it this long without a system in place."

"The special education team was stretched to the absolute maximum," Calhoun says. "Communication was also an issue. And you factor that into this enormously complex process that managing special education data has become. People were drowning in paper work."

In April 2006, Folsom Cordova administrators asked Spectrum K12 to analyze the special education program's data management system, identify key problem areas, and recommend solutions. About 30 district employees took part in group discussions with the Spectrum K12 team. (In some cases a needs analysis can require interviews with 60 or 70 district personnel, from administrators to teachers to specialists.)

"The compliance issues were obviously of extreme concern," Calhoun says. "We were trying to get a good bead on defining the problems and challenges we had. It was clear that technology could help. We wanted to get a clear picture in our own minds so we knew what we needed to do."

The 28-page report submitted to Folsom Cordova administrators the following month contained a detailed breakdown of the district's procedural and technological shortcomings. The report was divided into key findings, and the recommendations were based on the best special education practices that Spectrum K12 has observed from its collaborations with more than 280 school districts nationwide.

"It really spotlighted a number of issues for us, of where our communications challenges were," Calhoun says. "And it helped us define what we wanted to make sure any system of the future would have. The more I learned how their processes worked, the more amazed I was that we'd made it this long without a system in place."

In the end, Folsom Cordova opted to purchase Spectrum K12's Encore? software to help manage its special education data and enable providers throughout the district to access it in a more efficient manner. Fortunately, Calhoun says, the district's special education staff embraced the recommended changes. "I have had numerous conversations with people in that department who, it's clear to me, get how this is going to help them in the future," she says. "They get how this is going to make their lives easier."