PROVIDENCE — The state-run Providence public schools must prioritize special education students for pre-K seats and hire more teams to evaluate preschoolers with developmental delays, according to a new settlement in a class-action lawsuit about the district’s failure to serve children with special needs.
The existence of a settlement in the class-action lawsuit was announced late last month, but the agreement was not made public until Thursdaywhen it was filed in U.S. District Court. The agreement still requires approval by a judge.
Parents of children between the ages of 3 and 5 in Providence will start getting notices about the settlement soon, according to the court documents, and will have until Oct. 20 to object to it.
The lawsuit against the Providence public schools and the R.I. Department of Education was filed back in July on behalf of parents by civil rights groups in response to the public school district’s failure to serve preschool-aged children with developmental disabilities.
Federal law requires districts to provide services to these children starting at age 3, but dozens of children with approved individualized education programs (IEPs) were forced to wait months on a placement, an investigation by WPRI revealed earlier this year.
The lawsuit further revealed that in addition to the students waiting to be placed, hundreds of other students were still waiting to be evaluated to see if they qualified for the special education services, or were being denied some of the services in their IEPs.
In the proposed settlement filed with the court Thursday, the two sides agreed that Providence public schools would hire three evaluation teams by Sept. 20, and maintain those three teams until the backlog is gone.
As of June 30, there were 155 children waiting to be evaluated, according to court documents. Victor Morente, a spokesperson for the R.I. Department of Education, said as of this week 37 of the 155 students have been evaluated. He did not provide a number for how many additional children had been added to the waitlist since June 30.
Morente said PPSD “will conduct evening and weekend evaluations; has added a virtual evaluation platform; and has streamlined internal evaluation processes” as they seek to comply with the law.
Separately from the evaluation backlog, as of June 30 the district said 57 preschool-aged children were deemed qualified for special education but were still waiting for services. Those 57 students have now been placed in classrooms, Morente said.
The first day of school in Providence was on Wednesday, though special education services are offered year-round to students who qualify.
Some other key elements of the settlement include a requirement that any open pre-K seats in the district are prioritized for special education students. It also says maximum class sizes would be waived, “so long as such waiver would not affect the health and safety of students and staff or otherwise render defendants in violation of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) requirements.”
Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union and a middle school special education teacher, said the union contract does not spell out a class size limit for special education preschool, though it does have limits for traditional classrooms. She said class size for special education should be based on the medical needs of the students in the class.
“My big concern would be that if they are having to increase class sizes, that they take into consideration the dynamic makeup of each individual classroom,” Calabro said.
The settlement also says that for any evaluations not scheduled by Sept. 15, parents will be notified that PPSD will pay for an outside evaluation with a private provider.
The company Thru Consulting LLC has been hired as an independent monitor to ensure compliance, according to the settlement, at PPSD’s expense.
The company will provide the court with a monthly report on the district’s progress, and recommendations if Providence is still failing to serve the students.