District-university partnership aims to improve special education referrals and assessment

Published: Oct. 17, 2016
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While the rest of Avon Elementary was quiet, a group of devoted district educators and researchers gathered this past summer to diligently review two new tools that aim to improve the special education referral and assessment processes for years to come. 

For the past three years, John Hoover, associate research professor, has been working closely with leaders in the Eagle County School District — a rural, mountain district where approximately 35 percent of its nearly 7,000 students are English learners.

Nationwide, it is well documented that language acquisition abilities are frequently misunderstood as learning disabilities. In fact, Hoover and colleagues Professor Emeritus Leonard Baca and the late Janette Klingner essentially “wrote the book” on misplacement in special education and distinguishing language acquisition from disability when they published Why Do English Leaners Struggle with Reading, now in its second edition.

“Once referred, most children will eventually be placed in special education,” Hoover explained. “A child misplaced in special education is not being helped.”

The educators in Eagle County agreed and together with CU Boulder researchers developed and implemented two guides to uniformly refer and assess English learners. The guides help teachers and team leaders gather a “body of information” on each student, reflecting on factors such as culturally and linguistically responsive instruction, language acquisition, and family engagement.

Jennifer Erickson, an Educational Equity and Cultural Diversity alumna and a middle school special education teacher, helped develop and pilot the guides. “After the pilot, I discovered I really know this kid now,” she said. “Referrals are not made by just one person. The more the process is shared, the better it will be.”

While the assessment project has been developing for the past three years with support from three CU Boulder outreach grants, the university’s partnership with Eagle County Schools has been in place for more than a decade. CU Boulder offers a hybrid online/onsite Master’s program and diversity and disability trainings for district staff like Erickson. The mutual respect and partnership is the centerpiece of the assessment project, Hoover said.

“The university-district partnership is key,” he said. “Without that, none of this would work.”

Hoover’s longtime colleague Dana Harrison said she has come to know several university researchers and instructors personally and appreciates their resources for and support in improving cultural and linguistic responsiveness in the classroom.

“They’ve been wonderful partners any time we need something,” said Harrison, assistant principal at Avon Elementary. “We look at things in a different way now. This is seamless. This is how we do business. This is what is best for our kids.”

Related Faculty: John Hoover