Most city schools lack full-time special education managers

There are too many nights where Shavern Fraser finds herself in front of her computer at 10 p.m., filling out documents and hoping she won’t be frazzled the next day at school.

Fraser, who’s been with the School District of Philadelphia for 15 years, is the special education compliance manager for Rhawnhurst Elementary in Northeast Philly. She’s also a case manager for grades 3, 4, and 5 at the school, which gives her teaching responsibilities on top of her managerial role.

“It’s not feasible, even if you were superwoman,” Fraser said.

At Nebinger Elementary in Queen Village, Lindsay Dugan has spent the past seven years navigating a similar balancing act. She’s currently both a compliance manager and a learning support teacher for students in grades 6, 7, and 8.

“There’s definitely been years where I’ve felt like I’m doing two jobs,” Dugan said, “and I’m doing neither of them well.”

Compliance managers — also known as monitors, or SPECM — ensure special education students receive all the services to which they are legally entitled. The position, which exists at schools across the nation, is sometimes filled in Philadelphia by a dedicated staff member. But it’s often added to other teaching duties as an “extra-curricular” role, according to school district spokesperson Marissa Orbanek.

Duties go beyond paperwork and meetings; compliance managers are critical point persons who provide training for other special education teachers, answer parent questions, and assist students who need behavioral support.

“My job is to make sure that their teachers can serve them like they deserve, and that their parents can participate,” Dugan said.

Marjorie Anderson, whose daughter is currently in 8th grade at Morton McMichael School in Mantua, said staff turnover made the compliance manager role even more important. “She became the singular point person at the school that was the most constant for my daughter,” Anderson said.

Doreatha Davis described a similar experience with her granddaughter, who attends Bartram High School in Southwest Philly. Her granddaughter describes the school’s SPECM as “the one I can go to if I have any problems,” Davis said, and considers her office to be “a means or a way of escape when overwhelmed or when things get a little too crazy.”

Last year, the Philadelphia School District had more than 20,600 children enrolled in special education — nearly 1 out of 5 students. That number has climbed steadily over the past half-decade.

In April 2021, the district did a survey to inform its budget. Nearly 13,000 people answered, mostly parents or guardians and school staff. In the results, “additional supports for special education students” ranked as the most important student learning support need.

The free response section, which garnered about 4,700 entries, included 31 mentions of the need for what’s called a “fully released” SPECM, making it one of the survey’s most referenced positions. The term means the compliance manager has no individual students on their caseload, so they are “released” from trying to balance teaching time with bigger picture responsibilities of running the special ed department.

Across the Philadelphia School District, there are approximately 50 fully released compliance managers, according to spokesperson Orbanek, who said they’re placed in schools where 30% or more of students have special needs.

The district operates around 215 schools, which means three-quarters don’t have a fully released SPECM. “However,” Orbanek said, “schools without a fully-released SPECM continue to provide students and teachers with the services and professional support through other means.”

Even those who like their mix of administrative and teaching duties say an overall lack of special education staffing is making that balance more difficult. Jennifer Katz currently supports K-5 students while also holding the SPECM role at Jenks Academy for the Arts & Sciences in Chestnut Hill.

“I kind of like the balance between the administrative type tasks and working with students because, you know, I’m a teacher,” Katz said. “That’s my love. I love working with kids.”

Her major pain point this year has been the wide range of grades she’s required to support, which she said forces her to combine different levels when she’d prefer to work with smaller groups.

Fraser, at Rhawnhurst Elementary, believes every school should have a fully released special education compliance manager. As it stands, she’s receiving an annual stipend of $4,000 for taking on a role she feels should be a separate job, and it frustrates her to watch teachers in similar positions break down in tears at district meetings.

“My sanity,” Fraser said, “is worth more than $4,000.”

School budgets force annual debates about staffing

The balancing act most special education compliance managers must perform in Philadelphia can have a ripple effect on students across the system.

Christine Celotto is in her 12th year teaching special education in the district, currently at Bregy Elementary in South Philly. She’s new to the compliance manager role this year, and also has 6th and 8th grade classes. It’s become so challenging to stop SPECM-related interruptions to her teaching, she said, that she resorted to placing a box outside her door for others to leave their questions. It didn’t work.

“Some days I feel like I’m suffocating because of all the places that they want me to be all at once,” Celotto said. “Both phones are ringing at the same time; they’re paging me on the PA system; the people with the walkies are coming looking for me.”

Celotto expressed gratitude that her students are capable of working through the disruptions, but also said she understands their frustration. “They get jealous — they’re like, ‘Oh, this is MY time with you; you’re supposed to be paying attention to me.’ And I get it.”

Her principal has been supportive, Celotto said, advocating for her role to become fully released, but she doesn’t expect anything to change before the next budget cycle.

Principals have broad say over how their Board of Education-determined budgets are allocated, and some have chosen to create a fully released SPECM role.

Rachael DeSimone at Prince Hall Elementary in Northwest’s West Oak Lane neighborhood spent her first two years balancing teaching with her compliance manager duties. After her principal received money for an additional position, DeSimione transitioned to being a fully released SPECM.

She’s now able to spend more time talking to general education teachers about students who need support, DeSimone said. She’s also found time to meet with parents and help connect them to additional outside-of-school resources.

Marguerite Pierre, currently an ESL program specialist at the LINC High School in North Philly’s Juniata neighborhood, has 18 years of education experience, including three as a special education compliance manager.

She believes it shouldn’t be a principal’s responsibility to find money for the position, and advocates for the district’s Office of Specialized Services to fund it directly. She suggested special education managers could unite to push for change via the teachers union.

“As far as I’m concerned, SPECM should have its own line item when it comes to PFT negotiations for salaries,” Pierre said. She’d like to see the position be removed from the teacher category and treated separately.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the bottom line,” Pierre said. “If you’re willing to accept it, then it’s going to be the status quo.”

Michelle Edwards, now in her 14th year with the district, is in her second year as a fully released SPECM. At Thomas G. Morton Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia, Edwards says she’s one of the staff members who’s on a walkie, constantly on the go to address emergency student needs or speak with parents.

Edwards noted the district serves a highly transient population and that effectively managing those transfers (including transfers into and out of charter schools) takes time.

“It’s impossible to do it all if you’re not fully released,” Edwards said. “So there’s going to be things that slide whether you want it to or not.”

Dugan, the compliance manager at Nebinger, suggested creating a fully released SPECM position at each school would provide a good opportunity for teachers who want to take a leadership role without leaving their site. Otherwise, she said, colleagues see the difficulty in the role and say, “They could offer me a second paycheck and I would still not do it.”

Special education leaders at the district level are sympathetic to the issues, Dugan noted, especially since many used to have the SPECM role themselves.

“But once you’re removed from that, it’s very easy to forget the stress of it,” she said. For Dugan, “It’s another year that I’m balancing both.”

From Billy Penn
Photo: Santi Vedri