During our first episode, we explore how the pandemic affected Georgia’s Part B 618 and SPP/APR data trends and quality. The good news? It’s far from doom and gloom. Dawn and Linda highlight many bright spots, including how they have harnessed virtual technology to improve collaboration, connectivity, and stakeholder engagement. They also focus on the positive effects the pandemic has had on Georgia’s data culture.
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### Episode Transcript ###
00:00:01.52 >> You're listening to "A Date with Data," with your host, Amy Bitterman.
00:00:07.34 >> Hey, it's Amy. And I'm so excited to be hosting "A Date with Data." I'll be chatting with state and district special education staff who, just like you, are dealing with IDEA data every day.
00:00:19.50 >> "A Date with Data" is brought to you by the IDEA Data Center.
00:00:24.21 >> On today's episode, we're joined by Linda Castellanos, program manager, and Dawn Kemp, Part B data manager, who are both with the Georgia Department of Education. Thank you for being with us. Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourselves and your role in the Department?
00:00:38.88 >> Thank you. Certainly. I have been at the Department of Education for 11 years now, and I serve as the manager of the Part B data, as well as at our online software application for IP and special education paperwork development. Before that I was an administrative assistant for 10 years, and a special education teacher for about 22 years.
00:00:57.96 >> Thanks. Dawn, do you want to share a little about yourself?
00:01:00.69 >> I am Dawn Kemp, and I have been with the Department of Education for about a year and a half in this current role of Part B data manager. And prior to that, I had a variety of experiences; I was a special education director for approximately 19 years across three different school districts. I also was a special educator for 12 years, and I also worked in the college and university settings for approximately six or seven years. So that's my background.
00:01:38.94 >> I wanted to start out with talking about how the pandemic has really impacted your data trends and the results of your data. So can you share a bit about that?
00:01:49.22 >> We really saw a change in our discipline data, primarily that the reporting of discipline went way down since COVID hit, even as people have returned in part to physical attendance. Our discipline count is still substantially down from pre-COVID days. I think the scariest thing for all of us, we've seen a significant change in achievement, and we recognize that that achievement is going to take a long time to recover from.
00:02:13.54 We also saw changes in environment code, particularly for our pre-K children. I think that there's been a reluctance on the part of parents to send their children to -- their young children especially -- to public schools and-or to any sort of day care or community setting, where we have served students in the past.
00:02:31.05 >> It's important to recognize the impact, the graduation and dropout rate, how they have been impacted by the COVID pandemic. I believe that we definitely saw an inflation in graduation rates, and we saw a decrease in the dropout rate -- both of those trends are trends that you would want to see in your data. Unfortunately, it probably was impacted in a manner that you're not going to be able to replicate or be able to draw conclusions with long-term. It will be interesting to see the way that data for graduation and dropout trends in the years past COVID; in other words, you see a dramatic drop in your graduation, or is it more of a leveling out to post-pandemic levels?
00:03:35.21 >> We also have had concerns about our Indicator 11 and 12 data. The data itself doesn't look substantially different, but what we have seen is a significant increase in the exceptions, so that a lot of districts are reporting, for many students, that they completed evaluations late, but it was because the parent delayed giving consent, or once the parent gave consent, they were not willing to bring the child to school or to have anyone into the home, and perhaps felt that a virtual evaluation would not be an appropriate way of assessing their child. So we've seen a whole lot of exceptions being reported over the past couple of years.
00:04:11.82 And then I'd also say dispute resolution, that different things are coming up in complaints the district's never planned for or thought about how they would respond to, and that there's been some uncertainty on the part of the district level, and how they should respond that's resulted in, I think, an increase in disputes.
00:04:28.08 >> You talked a little bit about some of these having longer-term impacts on your data. Are there other areas where you think there might be impacts going further into the future? What are your thoughts on how to kind of handle and address some of those?
00:04:40.57 >> I think that the biggest concern, long-term, is really going to be the achievement. The rest of them, I think, will resolve themselves as the impact of COVID at the present time lessens -- please, God, let that happen. If it clears up some and more people are able to return to school physically, I think a lot of this will clear itself up. But I think achievement is going to take a long time, a long time, to clean up.
00:05:03.47 And we've done a lot of things to try to address achievement, and really are addressing it, I think, in a lot of ways. One thing we've done is just to increase access to the internet, particularly in rural areas around the states. We have grants available and we're providing more training about using assistive technology, both in the school and at home, that students should also be able to have those assistive devices at home, if that's what's needed for them educationally.
00:05:27.11 We've had a lot more professional development for teachers about how to do virtual instruction, about specially-designed instruction, which is important in all times, that in these times becomes even more important. We have some multi-sensory reading approaches that we're training on, or training about some specific dyslexia requirements, professional learning, some rules about dyslexia that are new in the State of Georgia.
00:05:53.37 >> Well, leadership in Georgia is clearly geared toward what impacts the individual student and family, and having compassion for family, for educators, for associated staff during this pandemic time. And toward that end, the governor in Georgia and the legislature have done a lot to provide some supports relative to, as she stated, internet access. There's also been real emphasis recently with additional funding for teachers, and monies, and also the retention of educators. That's a tremendous problem, of course, nationally as well as in the state. And we actively have a teacher retention project that is moving forward, a teacher retention grant -- a lot of emphasis in that area.
00:07:00.97 I also have to indicate within the Division of Special Education Services the current director has done a masterful job, as Linda indicates, having initiatives that are geared toward directly impacting students, such as the reading, the multi-sensory reading approaches, the supports to LEA leaders that are impactful. One of the more exciting ones, I think, is the Building Leadership Academy that has developed, to try to work with administrators at the building level -- those first-line administrators like your principals, your assistant principals, that encounter that parent when they are in distress, and understanding how to better work with parents. And to that end, they have an avatar-type situation where they can actually work through problematic scenarios and determine how that would work out, because as we all know, you don't get a redo in real life, but with the avatar, you can get a redo. You can see some different depictions. So I really want to indicate that the emphasis is very much on what's impactful for the front-line educator and for students, all students, but particularly emphasizing students with disabilities.
00:08:41.35 >> The teacher shortage has been a problem for years in Georgia, and just seems to have increased since COVID. So the importance of addressing it has really been elevated. And interestingly, just this week, an announcement was made that during the 2021 legislative session, the Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 32 to establish an income tax credit for teachers of high-need areas who agree to teach in rural districts, for low-performing schools. And those eligible teachers will receive a $3,000 tax credit for five consecutive school years. So I think that's exciting, and I hope that will serve as a draw to special education teachers.
00:09:21.62 Around the state, the three areas most impacted by teacher shortage is probably the same as in media areas; math, science and special education. So we're hopeful that that will bring us some new folks.
00:09:32.18 >> Wow, fantastic. It sounds like you have put a lot of thought and planning into what you can do down the road, and now, that will really try to meet some of these challenges head-on that you all have encountered, and know have much longer-term impacts. How has the pandemic impacted the quality of your IDEA data? And how have you addressed those challenges?
00:09:53.19 >> Interestingly, our data quality has not been adversely impacted in the pandemic. We've been able to continue to obtain very high-quality data, which I think is a very strong byproduct of the highly-elaborate and well-developed data collection systems that Georgia has. One thing I would also add, though, one of the reasons that we probably did not have the data impacts or the data quality impacts, or a lot of the initiatives that we've already spoken about that were proactive toward reaching out to LEAs and to parents during the pandemic. And Linda, would you like to add some to that?
00:10:45.99 >> I would say that in the first year when COVID hit, we were very fortunate, because the first day in March is our account day for a lot of our reporting purposes, and that day was in the past by the time COVID hit. And we had to close on March the 13th. So that year, we were fortunate that although the data submission was not yet completed, the data process collection had already begun, and we were to report what happened on that date. So that was lucky for us. And in addition, I think that we've historically provided a very high-level of training about data reporting. And we're continuing to do that; have actually changed how we do a lot of the training so that it's been virtual in the past two years. But we try to be on top of questions that come in.
00:11:27.60 If a question comes in from a district, we kind of think, hmm, that might be a question that other districts might need to know about also, and we'll share that out when we think it's appropriate, so that we're trying to be preventative, and giving people good guidance before the data's due for final submission, to improve the accuracy of it, and that there's work across -- like, we work with the Data Collections Department and Technology Services, because much of the data that we collect is part of a larger data collection process. And with other units also, with the Assessment Unit, so I think that the collaboration with the various divisions at Georgia Department of Ed has helped maintained the quality of the data. Not that we're necessarily happy with the data that's accurate, or that we think is as accurate as we can expect it to be. But I feel like we have accurate data, so I wouldn't say that there's a quality impact. But certainly the data itself has been very adversely affected in a lot of areas.
00:12:21.66 >> So now can you share a few bright spots with us, if there are success stories, things that you're really proud of or want to highlight?
00:12:28.90 >> Early in the days, especially, of COVID, it was really heartwarming to see some of the stories that we would hear about from time to time, for example, things like bus drivers delivering food for breakfast and for lunch for children and for their families, or busses that would park somewhere with a hotspot on their bus, so that rural families could access internet through that. We also had stories about teachers visiting their students who missed seeing their teachers at school, and they would visit through the doorways, or through the windows, I mean, just trying to establish that personal relationship still, especially at the start of the school year. So I really think that you saw the heart of people who have kind of committed their lives to working with children and with educating children, not just teachers, but other school staff, the lunchroom staff, the bus drivers, the parapros -- so many people in so many ways that tried hard to stay connected with our families and with our children.
00:13:21.59 >> I have to say, when the pandemic began, I was in a district as a Special Ed director and viewing it from the outside, the response from the Department of Education -- I mean, it was immediate, it was highly proactive, and particularly especially at providing guidance about, how can we meet the needs of students during this time? Here are some suggestions. Here are some platforms that you can use. I just really felt very, very supported. And I think as Linda articulated, it was just a very bright spot that we had a system that was very centered on students, teachers and front-line. I really do feel that was very important.
00:14:15.01 We also have developed a tremendous amount of capacity in the use of virtual platforms. How do you use them to meet? How do you use them in instruction? What are some ways to maximize that, that I believe we never would have utilized or thought of in the past; it was very much a byproduct of the pandemic because when you're forced to conduct business with LEAs and all responses and teachers are in a situation where they have to communicate with students via technology, you have to maximize that. And as Linda had indicated in discussion yesterday with me, there are also implications as we move forward out of the pandemic time.
00:15:09.55 >> You know, learning to use virtual instruction or virtual meetings was always on a "To Do" list. As I manage the IP Online software application, we've talked a good bit about, we should do more of that, right, with it being an in-person delivery all the time. That way the training is there. If a person joins your staff after we've done the training, they still have access to the training -- there are a lot of benefits to that, that COVID certainly brought that to the top of the list of things that needed to be done. And we've put out a lot that have been recorded meetings, or learning modules in different applications. And I think that all that's really good. I do think that people miss in-person, and that we need to try to return to some in-person where we're able to.
00:15:48.16 But also, I think that there's lessons learned. I've said many times that society has paid a huge price for COVID, and what we've learned from it will never be worth the price we paid. But we still need to look for the lessons learned, and the bright spots in there. So I think that one thing we've learned, as we've proved our ability to use virtual, is all the different ways that virtual can be used. So, for example, our hospital home-bound children that used to receive minimal amounts of service, often are receiving more services than ever through use of virtual instruction. Or a student who has been suspended from school can still participate in virtual instruction. If you have snow or bad weather or anything like that and school had to close unexpectedly, in the past, that was just a day off from school. Now we can do this virtually. So I think there's ways that we can use that now that we've learned it, that will be wonderful for us, moving forward.
00:16:34.46 >> Are there other changes that have happened in terms of your data culture?
00:16:38.65 >> Certainly I believe that when you have to communicate virtually as opposed to in-person, you do have a lot more cohesiveness to the information you're presenting, because it is preserved. We definitely have moved a lot of our technical assistance and our professional learning to a virtual type media, because as we're all aware, rates of infection have vacillated up and down; you have different regions of the state, the density of the population. As Linda elaborated earlier, now when we conduct training or we provide informational modules, they are preserved, and individuals who might not have been able to participate initially are able to revisit that. And that's very, very helpful.
00:17:39.05 We also have gotten an opportunity to include more participants in our trainings, where an LEA might have difficulty sending 20 or 30 people to a date of training, they would certainly have no difficulty with 30 people logging on in their LEA. And so you have a diverse population of individuals participating in the training.
00:18:06.61 >> Something that's changed a lot, though, in terms of who we interact with, as Dawn shared, like a lot of the materials that we've put together for the state advisory panel, related, for example, to the SPP-APR, are all publicly posted now, but they're posted, and anybody that wants to can look in. So we've been able to make the increase of parent involvement in those kind of things, giving them the same information that other advisory panel members are receiving. So I think that there's benefits to it. But there are downsides also to everything being virtual. We have "collaborative communities," is what we call them, it's where LEAs meet regionally, and we send representatives from DOE to those meetings. It's an assigned district liaison from DOE to each of those regions. And those have begun returning to more of an in-person kind of thing, although exceptions are often made as needed for people who have health concerns, and their immediate families are not able to. So even when there are in-person meetings, there's often a virtual opportunity in addition that.
00:19:04.21 >> Thank you so much. Was there anything else you want to share with other states and districts?
00:19:08.64 >> The other thing I can think of just to add as an additional factor is that over time, what we've learned is the importance of collaboration. So we've really, I think, increased our collaboration over the past several years. There may have been some COVID impact on that, it may just be as Dawn and I learn more about doing these jobs, that we've really worked towards increasing collaboration with assessment folks, with accountability folks, with other people within special education, with our technology people who help us with data collections, or help build our applications. So collaboration is what it's all about.
00:19:39.73 >> To access podcast resources, submit questions related to today's episode, or if you have ideas for future topics, we'd love to hear from you. The links are in the episode content. Or connect with us via the Podcast page on the IDC website, at IDEAData.org.