Controversy continued to churn Wednesday on a new state law that offers multiple ways for some special education students to earn a high school diploma.
Officials of the state Department of Education told a key advisory panel that the agency will hold a series of webinars for school districts on how to implement the overhaul.
“It is going to require a total shift in how people think about things,” Jamie Wong, director of special education policy for the department, said of the law.
The webinars are scheduled for Sept. 29 and 30 and Oct. 9 and 10.
Others are scheduled for November and December.
The plans follow heated criticism earlier this month from one of the sponsors of the law and others who charged that students would suffer because local educators were not getting enough assistance from the state Department of Education.
Agency officials countered that they have been working to implement the law since June 6 and noted that there was little time between final approval of the legislation and the start of the 2014-15 school year, which is when the sweeping changes take effect.
The state has 82,279 special education students — 12 percent of total public school enrollment — and spends about $320 million per year to assist them.
Disabilities include learning problems, speech or language impairments, developmental delays, emotional disturbances and autism.
Under the previous law, most high school students with disabilities took the same standardized exams as their peers and had to pass them to earn a traditional high school diploma.
Under the new law, a special education student’s advisory team is authorized to hammer out an alternative path to graduation, regardless of how the student fares on what used to be essential tests.
Those officials — they are called Individualized Education Program advisers — are supposed to identify rigorous goals for the student and offer diagnostic information, monitoring, intensive instructional programs and innovative methods.
Liz Gary, a St. Tammany Parish parent who attended the meeting, said urgency is needed. “Our children cannot keep waiting,” Gary told the Special Education Advisory Panel, which makes recommendations to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Under the law, IEP teams are supposed to devise standards for students who pursue alternative paths to graduation within 30 days of the start of the school year.
However, state officials made clear that local school districts will not be held to that requirement.
They are offering guidance on how officials can identify students with disabilities who might qualify for the new paths to a diploma.
For high school juniors and seniors that might mean students who failed to earn at least a “fair” on end-of-course exams after two tries.
For sophomores and freshmen that could be students who failed to meet assessment benchmarks in the seventh or eighth grades.
The September webinars for local school districts are supposed to focus on graduation rules.
The two in October will deal with promotion rules.
The sessions in November will cover alternate ways for students to demonstrate proficiency in subjects through nontraditional ways.
Wong said teachers will have the final say in whether students did that.
One of the chief complaints of local educators is the need for IEP teams to get assistance on how to hammer out alternative assessments.
Those teams are expected to get state instruction on that topic later in the school year — another sign of the hurdles involved in quickly implementing the overhaul.
Meanwhile, a special panel called the Minimum Foundation Program Task Force spent nearly three hours reviewing how the state finances special education students and whether changes are needed.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.