Flexible Service Delivery

by JIM SURBER
When you walk into some school buildings in Illinois, things may look a little different. You may notice the custodian listening to a 1st grader read to him on a bench outside the classroom. Or you might pass volunteers in the hallway, talking quietly with their assigned student Reading Buddies.

In Illinois an innovative service delivery model known as the Flexible Service Delivery System, or Flex, has been in place for seven years, enabling increasing numbers of students with academic and behavioral challenges to succeed at school. The goal of Flex is to shift the focus from categorizing and labeling children with disabilities to a system that provides necessary modifications and adaptations to make more children successful in general education.

Flex focuses on functional assessment of student needs, in part by providing more useful information to classroom teachers and through the development of classroom-based interventions.

A collaborative problem-solving team, which includes parents, teachers, related services personnel and an administrator, is responsible for identifying the needs of our diverse learners. But the principal is critical to the success of Flex by assuming responsibility for setting a positive climate and being available to allocate needed building resources when innovative interventions are recommended by the problem-solving team. The building principal typically assigns the teams.

One elementary school principal summed up her experiences in a report to the board of education this way: “Flex is not necessarily an easier way of providing services to our at-risk students but it clearly is a better way.”

Guiding Principle
The problem-solving component is an interactive and ongoing process whereby the team works together to meet the needs of our diverse learners. Typically grade-level teams schedule time on a weekly basis to meet, solve problems, develop interventions and collect data that allow them to evaluate the success of the interventions and make future decisions about the needs of the student. The problem-solving meetings cannot be viewed as an end or a one-time event but rather as an ongoing process.

Successful classroom modifications are often ongoing and may even be recommended as a part of a student’s plan from year to year. At a Flex site, everyone is responsible for the education of all the children and most of the referred students receive curricular modifications without being placed in special education programs.

Like most new initiatives, ongoing staff development and training are critical to the success of Flex. In most cases, building-based training and a trainer-of-trainer model ensure support and training for new staff, without the expense of high-cost external consultants.

Evaluation Findings
The Flexible Service Delivery System is a grassroots effort that was initiated in Illinois during the 1997-98 school year. Multiple school districts and several special education cooperatives, including the LaGrange Area Department of Special Education and the Knox-Warren Special Education District, have been approved by the Illinois State Board of Education to implement this innovative service delivery system. The state board provided grants to participating schools and districts and the Illinois Flexible Service Delivery Consortium was created by the personnel at the participating Flex sites to provide a mechanism for collaborating on common professional development needs throughout the state.

The Flex Consortium also started a statewide evaluation system in 2000 to assess the impact of flexible service delivery on students, staff and parents. Research led by Mark Swerdlik, a professor of psychology at Illinois State University, found over the last three years that general education personnel are implementing almost half of all interventions while special education teachers implemented only 13 percent. This study indicates that the full responsibility for the individual and group intervention plans and the progress monitoring for students without disabilities has not fallen solely on the shoulders of the special education teachers--countering the fears of administrators who've been asked to consider using Flex in their buildings.

The data also suggest that general education teachers and staff are willing and capable of dealing with individual interventions for the academically and behaviorally challenged students in their classrooms.

As predicted, Flex also is lowering the number of initial referrals to special education even though the total number of students classified with a disability has remained relatively stable. One noteworthy impact has been the dramatic increase in support and services to all students with special needs without a dramatic increase in personnel, equipment, materials or cost.

One of the most unique features of a Flex school is the early and ongoing involvement of parents in the process. In places where I've worked, parents have routinely expressed surprise and appreciation at being included in the problem-solving meetings and being partners in the development and implementation of interventions for their children. Parent surveys have reported high rates of attendance and involvement at the problem-solving meetings and a strong parental belief that children are receiving the services necessary to be successful in school. Parental attendance at the team meetings averages a remarkable 93 percent.

The Flexible Service Delivery System is proving to be a valuable and validated approach to meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse population of students.

Jim Surber is the executive director of the LaGrange Area Department of Special Education, 1301 West Cossitt, Ave. LaGrange, IL 60525 E-mail: jsurber@ladsc.org