Ms. Denning's departure represents a significant loss not only of institutional expertise, but of expertise in special education. In addition to her eight years as the state leader of special education, Ms. Denning had been a trained, certified special education teacher in the Kyrene School District for over 12 years, serving also as a literacy specialist during four of those years. So what's happening at the ADE without her?
It appears that Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas has no intention of filling Ms. Denning's position. Indeed, if you look at the organizational chart of the ADE, Ms. Denning's position is still listed as "vacant."
Perhaps Ms. Denning's duties are being assumed by Robin Kauakahi, the Associate Superintendent of "Highly Effective Schools" who was appointed in September 2015, with responsibility for Title I and special education students. But, respectfully, Ms. Kauakahi's background and experience do not even come close to approaching those of Ms. Denning when it comes to students with disabilities. (According to an ADE press release announcing her appointment, Ms. Kauakahi had been the director of a "bi-cultural public charter school specializing in children with exceptional needs and Tohono O’odham youth and Native students" and had "several jobs directed at serving tribal students and students with special needs.")
As if losing Ms. Denning were not enough of a blow, Superintendent Douglas decided to abandon one of the most important projects Ms. Denning had been working on -- an overhaul of the long-outdated and convoluted rules that govern special education statewide. In February 2016, a letter was posted on the ADE website announcing that the work of the Special Education Rules Committee -- a group consisting of education stakeholders throughout the state, including parents -- was no longer "part of the priorities" of the new Superintendent.
The saddest part about this for the dyslexia community is that the committee was about to begin working on a comprehensive "guidance" document to help schools understand how to identify students with "Specific Learning Disbilities" ("SLD") -- which include dyslexia -- under the IDEA. As any parent of a child with dyslexia in Arizona public schools knows, schools rarely identify students with SLD early enough to provide effective intervention by the end of the critical third grade year. Many times, students are never identified, or identified far too late.
The timing of the abandonment by the ADE of its effort to issue guidance about how to identify students with dyslexia (and other learning disabilities) is nothing if not ironic. For the first time ever this fall, third grade students with unidentified reading disabilities/dyslexia face possible retention under the Move on When Reading law. Moreover, a recent audit has shown a lack of accountability over how schools are spending the dedicated MOWR funds, further jeopardizing students' potential.
We understand the value our state leaders place on "local control," but the reality is that many local school districts and charters lack the personnel, resources and training to understand how to implement extremely complex, federal disability and civil rights laws (i.e. IDEA, Sec. 504, Title II/ADA). They need the guidance of highly trained experts, especially when it comes to the methods for identifying students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia.
Failing to appoint state leaders with expertise in special education and refusing to issue desperately needed guidance does not promote more local control. What it promotes instead is local abandonment -- of some of our state's most vulnerable children.