North Carolina School District Streamlines Its Special Education Management System

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools' (WS/FCS) special education program was experiencing problems common in many special education programs: personnel shortages, training issues, legal challenges and data collection difficulties. We needed a way to comply more effectively with federal standards and lessen the paperwork burden for special education. We also needed the ability to track or identify students with special needs, and provide them with appropriate services. It was clear that we could use customized data and automated processes to provide the administrative support we needed, but the data management system we were using didn't allow internal audit support or user-friendly manipulation of data fields.

Because of this, our district, located in central North Carolina, faced the challenge of upgrading its special education management system in a way that facilitated program evaluation, compliance monitoring and accountability tracking. After an extensive search, we chose 4GL School Solutions, a technology company focused on special education management software and services. Built around their Special Education Tracking System (SETS), 4GL helped us implement improved processes and a series of technology solutions.

Improving the Administrative Process

SETS is designed to aid in the administration of special education programs and provide automation of routine tasks, such as writing individualized education programs (IEPs). SETS also supports complex processes, including tracking team-meeting outcomes, monitoring the internal compliance of document completion and managing periodic reports. SETS is a thin-client solution that allows us to use a wide range of hardware platforms throughout the district without having to upgrade every computer in the system. It uses Microsoft Windows NT servers running Citrix with client software written in Microsoft Access and Visual Basic, so the bulk of the processing is done at the servers. This diminishes the bandwidth requirements, allowing us to use existing equipment, centralize technical support and work within our existing system area network.

At WS/FCS, we have found that the SETS applications improve the administrative process by identifying time line violations and their causes. The system also has the potential to identify overlapping and/or underutilized programs and caseload inequalities between teachers. Given time and full implementation, the system can help administrators know when budget dollars are being effectively spent, by determining whether students are improving as a result of the services provided.

IEP Solutions

SETS can serve two functions: It can help the school district improve recovery of Medicaid money, Special Education Child Count money and other funding by identifying students who were served but not counted. In addition, it can clean up inappropriate or inaccurate records to remove students who should not be counted; thus avoiding liability. SETS performs both of these functions by improving data collection processes and automatic internal auditing functions, creating audit trails to verify that IEP specified services have been received. The system then cross-checks these IEP components against the submitted Medicaid reimbursements to verify the submission of all billable events and program services provided.

Besides data management issues, WS/FCS had problems with the paperwork and compliance issues around IEP meetings. These meetings could take almost two hours because of the enormous complexity of the subject matter and process issues. With the current state and national shortage of trained and qualified special education teachers, most districts have to deal with a less experienced staff. This increases the likelihood of process and paperwork errors for which the district incurs financial responsibility. Both SETS and EZ Compliance Forms were configured to guide our teachers internally through the meetings and forms. We now have new teachers who can create error-free, compliant IEPs after only four hours of training. We have also seen the average length of IEP meetings decrease.

In addition, the SETS database gives school administrators access to other information that they need to make informed, data-driven decisions, such as IEP and grade history, as well as assessment scores. This data helps our administrators manage time lines better, along with IEP goals and objectives, related services, graduation requirements for the curriculum, and assessments of student achievement. With appropriate data input at the school level, SETS also helps us better manage the time-consuming process of tracking service provider identification, management and change, plus the critically important development of transitional plans and services.

The Future

WS/FCS is well on its way to meeting our goals. The database is now running, and live real-time forms have lightened the paperwork - reducing the procedural burden on the special education teachers for the first time. Future challenges include support for low-average, low-achieving students and inappropriate referrals to special education. In the future, we expect to transition fully to electronic forms for student records, including psychological evaluations, live data transfer from meetings, and tracking and monitoring IEP objectives in correlation to the regular education curriculum, as part of the program. When fully developed and implemented, this system has the potential to deliver the real promise of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Sam Dempsey, Ph.D.
Director for Exceptional
Children's Programs, WS/FCS

Contact Information
4GL School Solutions
Towson, MD
(800) 490-84GL

Below are the details on implementing the Special Education Tracking System.

WS/FCS' Implementation Plan
There were four phases to our implementation:

1.The first distinct part of the information management system is what 4GL calls the business process database, which identifies all children with disabilities. There is also the potential to input data on all Section 504, ESOL and at-risk students. During the conversion to the new data system, WS/FCS continued to run both systems until parity of data was achieved. To manage the data input, we trained and used special education assistants in each school. The speed and efficacy of conversion is directly linked to the quality and quantity of resources dedicated to data input.

2.The second part of the process was implementation of the EZ Compliance Forms. North Carolina has mandated state-specific forms. However, rather than put form templates on screen, we have developed real-time special education forms linked to databases that have led to improved consistency in our paperwork. These reflect the actual special education process, guide all teachers through each step of every form, and automatically check all entries for compliance. Because the program is automated, it significantly lowers the time required to train new staff in the proper paperwork and documentation. It also means that instead of using district-level time and personnel to monitor compliance manually, we are able to redirect staff to support better teacher training and improve quality of service delivery. The next task was to automate the rest of the special education paperwork. These are forms associated with evaluation and identification, entry and exit, and changes in service. In the future, we expect to see the development of electronic maintenance of psychological evaluations and referral forms required to enter special education.

3.Next, we anticipated the development of a third level of information management. This system has a sophisticated database structure, which allows data analysis and billing processes necessary to optimize Medicaid recovery for our school district. Using Web-based reporting by related service personnel, it can track reimbursable services and automatically compare what a provider should have reported at any point in time with what was actually reported. Automatic, child-specific reminders can also be sent to providers.

4. The fourth part of our comprehensive information management system is tied to system-level accountability of state and federal requirements. SETS uses Educational Outcomes Cubes, otherwise known as an OLAP data cube analytical software. There are currently 18 data cubes that monitor Compliance, Best Practice Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Educational Outcomes. Tracking educational outcomes for special education and at-risk students is at the core of the new No Child Left Behind Act.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.