Park City School District special education director sees progress
Jennifer Slade says district is taking steps to implement changes
March 21, 2017
Jennifer Slade often worked with parents and staff in the Park City School District during her tenure as the Utah State Board of Education's anti-discrimination specialist, where she focused on ensuring students throughout the state requiring special accommodations are treated fairly.
But when an opportunity came available last summer to join the district and deal with those issues from a different angle, Slade was eager to take it. She is now nearing the end of her first school year as the district's special education director.
Slade, who has been an educator for nearly 30 years, is tasked with making sure the district is fulfilling its legal requirements in how it deals with students with special needs, ranging from learning disabilities to medical conditions.
"I thought, 'What a great opportunity for me to grow and to increase my knowledge and work directly with the people I'd been engaging with,'" she said. "I wanted to be in the community and maybe make a difference."
She joins the district a year after an investigation from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights found that school officials had discriminated against a diabetic student and had failed to properly administer the 504 Plan that specifies her special accommodations. After the investigation was made public, other parents of students with medical conditions spoke out with similar claims.
In response, Superintendent Ember Conley and the Park City Board of Education ordered a comprehensive review of the district's special education program. The report, conducted by the State Board of Education and finalized this winter, found glaring problems with the district's operations. The areas of concern included a disconnect among parents, teachers and district administration; a lack of school- or district-wide outlines of how to provide equal access to all students; and a deficiency in training for staff about the basics of special education requirements.
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Slade, who helped districts work through similar problems in her role with the State Board of Education, was hired to fix them. She said her first months on the job have been aimed at fostering better communication with parents of students with special needs and implementing processes within the district to address the deficiencies outlined in the report.
That includes the installation of new software that allows students' 504 Plans and Individualized Education Plans to follow them when they change grades, and makes it easier for regular classroom students to have access to them. Parents in recent years have complained about both issues.
"I think that's been done generally in the past, based on my experience with the district, but that communication definitely breaks down occasionally," Slade said.
Additionally, Slade has met regularly with special education coordinators at each school to ensure staff members have more clarity about regulations and the district's responsibility in educating students with special accommodations.
She said it's been important to make sure the staff — the people she said are truly responsible for the well-being of the students on a day-to-day basis — are educated and feel comfortable having discussions with parents of children with special needs.
Community outreach has also been critical, she said, to help bridge divides that have been common among parents, teachers and the district. That aspect is important to her because, as a parent of children with special needs herself, she understands what it's like to have to work within the school system to get better care for her children.
She is happy to meet with parents — she's even willing to provide them with her cell phone number — but her primary focus is on building strong relationships at the ground level, between parents and the staff of each school.
"I want them to be able to advocate for their kids just like I did for my own children," she said. "I have only had my degree since 1996, and I was raising my kids prior to that, so I had to learn the system as I went. For me, it's satisfying that I can empower and give parents those tools."
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