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Interagency Agreements

By: D. Sarah Hadden and Susan A. Fowler

Young  Exceptional Children

Ellie put the phone back on its cradle. She slowly pushed her chair away from her desk and sighed

"What's the matter?" asked Sheila, another child development specialist at the Apple Valley Early Intervention Program.

"Oh, it"s that school district," said Ellie. "'You know Nick W.? That little boy who is turning three in December? Well, I sent a referral to the school district and they're saying they can't accept it because it"s not on one of their forms. And get this, they're also saying that they can't use the evaluation that I just did for his latest IFSP. I guess that neither our forms nor our assessments are good enough for them. Now I'm going to have to drive over there to get the right referral form and poor Nick is going to have to be assessed all over again. I just wish that we could sit down with those people and talk about this stuff."

Little did Ellie realize that across town, Mitch, the early childhood program coordinator for Apple Valley School District, was having a similar conversation with his colleague, Sandra. "I don't see why it has to be so difficult," he said. "I just don't get it. They want us to use the evaluations their teachers conduct, yet they refuse to release evaluations from physicians and therapists. Surely there must be something we can do so we don't keep going through this every time a child turns three. After all, aren't we all working for the best interest of the child?"

"Well," Sandra said, "a friend of mine who works down in Ash County told me that their school district wrote an interagency agreement with the early intervention agency that explicitly covered the policies and procedures they would follow when a child transitions to preschool services. She said that it was a lot of hard work, but once the agreement was completed and implemented, the transition process really improved. In fact, she said that things started to get better even before the agreement was implemented because the process of writing the agreement helped to improve their working relationship."

"Really?" Mitch replied. "I'd like to learn more about that. Can you contact your friend and get more information?"

"Sure can," Sandra said.

Transition from early intervention to preschool

Transition: The word itself denotes change. One of the first transitions faced by young children with developmental delays and their families is the shift from early intervention services for infants and toddlers to special education services, on or closely after the child's third birthday. Children and families often must say goodbye to trusted early intervention providers and learn to negotiate a new program that may have different service delivery plans, eligibility criteria, and providers. It is not unusual for families to report feelings of stress when they move from early intervention to preschool (Hains, Rosenkoetter, & Fowler, 1991).

Successful transitions do not just happen; they must be planned. Interagency planning helps ensure that the needs of the child and the family are addressed during the transition process (Rosenkoetter, Hains, & Fowler, 1994). A written interagency agreement on the age three transition may facilitate this process by spelling out policies and procedures to be followed by the sending and receiving agencies at the time of transition (Bruder Chandle 1996; Rosenkoetter et al., 1994; Rous, Hemmeter, & Schuster, 1994; Wischnowski & McCollum, 1995). A good interagency agreement will specify how information is transmitted from one agency to another, how assessments are conducted, and how eligibility for preschool special education services is determined. This article provides information about how to write an interagency agreement on the age three transition. The fictional community of Apple Valley will be used to illustrate the process.

The content and process of writing an agreement

Components of interagency agreements

An interagency agreement on the age three transition should address a variety of topics including a purpose statement and procedures for monitoring the agreement. Legal requirements that must be addressed include the following procedures:

  1. transmitting child information from sending to receiving agencies,
  2. discussing transition issues with families,
  3. determining child eligibility for services,
  4. selecting appropriate services for eligible children, and
  5. preparing children and families for the transition. Although not legally required, an interagency agreement also should include a mechanism for evaluating the success of the transition process.

Forming a team to write the agreement

The first step in writing an interagency agreement on the age three transition is to form a "transition" or "writing" team. This team should be comprised of individuals within the community who provide services to, or have a vested interest in, young children with special needs. While the exact composition of this team will vary from community to community, the following people should be invited to participate: representatives from early intervention and local education agencies, parents of young children with special needs, and representatives from other community agencies that serve young children with special needs.

Some communities have local interagency coordinating councils (LICC) that assist with the implementation of Part C legislation. These councils are typically comprised of representatives from various agencies that serve young children with disabilities and their families (e.g., early intervention, preschool special education, private child care, family resource centers, and hospitals). In those communities with an LICC, it is helpful to have the council coordinator assist with recruitment of team members. The coordinator in Apple Valley pulled together a team that included representatives from the early intervention program and the school district, two parents of children who had recently made the transition from early intervention to preschool, and representatives from Head Start. In Apple Valley, team members who worked for agencies negotiated release time from their Jobs to work on the agreement, while the LICC paid parents a stipend for their participation.

It is important that the team include all key players for the community involved. It was critical that Head Start participate in writing the Apple Valley agreement, for example, as many children who were eligible for special education services at age three received their services through Head Start. Administrators who are unable to attend all team meetings to draft the agreement should appoint a designee who represents the administrator at the meeting and reports back afterwards. While administrative support is paramount, service providers should be represented on the writing team as well. Service coordinators often are responsible for overseeing the transition process. Getting their input helps ensure that the provisions of the agreement will make sense and be followed.

The writing process

Writing an interagency agreement is a complex task requiring the commitment of all participants. The steps to writing an agreement are outlined in Table 1. In order to write an agreement, teams discuss and agree upon policies and procedures they will follow during a young child's transition. Teams can expect to attend a series of meetings held over a period of several weeks or months. Teams with a strong history of interagency collaboration may have an easier time reaching consensus than those with a poor history of collaboration.

It is often helpful for teams to begin by drafting a purpose statement. This exercise helps team members clarify what they hope to accomplish by writing an agreement, while reminding them of their common goal: to provide high quality services for young children and their families. Recall that the relationship between the Apple Valley Early Intervention Program and the school district was somewhat strained. As they wrote the purpose statement, team members agreed that each wanted to improve the transition process. Apple Valley's purpose statement is presented in Box 1.

Table 1

Steps Involved in Writing an Interagency Agreement

  1. Identify and recruit a team to write the agreement.
  2. Meet to discuss current practices and ideas.
  3. Draft the agreement.
  4. Distribute the draft and request feedback.
  5. Revise the agreement based on feedback.
  6. Distribute the revised agreement.
  7. Meet to discuss any proposed changes.
  8. Make final revisions.
  9. Distribute the final agreement for signatures.
  10. Periodically evaluate the agreement to determine efficacy.


Box 1 Purpose Statement for Apple Valley
The intent of this agreement is to promote a seamless service delivery system for young children with special needs as they make the transition from early intervention to preschool services at age three. This agreement will establish predictable guidelines for each agency to follow and reflects our commitment to increase collaboration between participating agencies. We wish to keep each other well informed; provide high quality services; reduce duplication of effort; and ensure that the priorities, resources, and concerns of each family are at the center of each child's transition.

Next the team should become familiar with state and federal regulations governing the age three transition to ensure that all team members are equally informed of required policy and practice. This is particularly important in light of the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA, which calls for changes in the transition process. For example, the new regulations require that a representative from the school district attend the transition planning conference that occurs 90 days before the child's third birthday.

Some components may be fairly straightforward and easy to address, while others may be more contentious. In some instances, it is useful to have an outside facilitator help the team work through difficult issues, such as providing services in the least restrictive environment (LRE) or providing services for children who turn three during the summer when schools may not be in session. Teams that cannot reach consensus on a specific issue should put the issue aside and address it at a later date. Compromise is often necessary and an initial agreement may not include all provisions that team members desire. However, many of these provisions may be included at a later date after the agreement has been in effect for a period of time.

Guiding questions

A set of questions can help guide teams as they work through each section of the agreement. These questions highlight key pieces of information that should be addressed. For example, a team discussing the section on determining eligibility must decide who will conduct the evaluations needed to determine eligibility for special education and related services during the preschool years. Questions to ask may include: Can evaluations conducted by the early intervention agency be used? Should the agencies collaborate in conducting the evaluation? Or, should full responsibility for the evaluation be assigned to the school district? The team also must determine when evaluations should be completed in order to ensure that children's services are not interrupted between early intervention and preschool.

Answering these questions helps the team clarify roles and responsibilities by explicitly stating the following:

  1. What transition-related activity needs to take place?
  2. When will it take place?
  3. How will it take place? and
  4. Who will be responsible for ensuring that it takes place? Tables 2 and 3 (see following page) present guiding questions related to two components of an agreement: preparing children and families and determining eligibility.

The process of answering these questions often leads to a greater understanding of how each participating agency operates. Prior to answering the guiding questions, Ellie, the child development specialist from the early intervention agency, did not realize that the school district's policies prevented them from using educational evaluations not conducted by a psychologist. Likewise, Mitch, the school district program coordinator, did not know that the early intervention agency was legally prohibited from re-releasing evaluations conducted by outside evaluators such as medical doctors and therapists.

Finalizing, signing, and monitoring the agreement

Finalizing the agreement

The team from Apple Valley wrote four drafts of their agreement. At each meeting, team members took turns taking notes on a laptop computer. They then distributed copies of the current draft to all team members. These drafts were shared with individuals who were not able to attend the meetings in order to obtain their feedback, which was then incorporated into new drafts. The process of getting input from others is essential, as it helps ensure that the final product is one with which everyone can agree.

Signing the agreement

Once all team members agree to the content of the agreement, it is time to signify so, by signing the agreement. Difficulties may arise if the team writing the agreement does not have the commitment of the administrators who are asked to sign it. If this happens, much team effort is lost and the team must reconvene to address issues not supported at the administrative level. This situation can be avoided by securing administrative support from the beginning.

Monitoring the agreement

All too often, agreements are signed, filed away, and forgotten. To avoid this, communities should include a plan for monitoring implementation of the agreement. In some instances, the writing team may opt to monitor implementation. In other instances, the local interagency coordinating council, school district, or early intervention agency may assume the responsibility to evaluate child transitions on a regular basis. Periodic review also helps ensure that staff hired after the agreement was written understand the provisions contained in the document. Evaluations may be based on surveys, interviews, or record review.

Table 2: Worksheet for Preparing Children and Families
for Transition

Acquainting families with issues related to transition

  • When will families learn about the transition process, including timelines?
  • Who will provide them with information about legal rights?
  • How and when will they be informed about eligibility criteria?

Developing transition plans

  • When will the transition plan be developed?
  • What kinds of goals and objectives will be included in transition plans?

Helping families become familiar with potential service delivery sites

  • How will families learn about future programs?
  • What kind of information will be available (e.g., print, video)?
  • How will families set up appointments to visit programs?
  • What should families look for when they visit a potential program?

Providing support for families throughout the transition process

  • Will families need help setting up program visits?
  • Do families need assistance getting to and from meetings?

Helping families prepare their children

  • Will children be able to visit the new program before the start date?
  • What activities can families do with their children to help them prepare for the change in services?
Table 3: Worksheet on Determining Eligibility for Services

Assessment of children

  • What existing information can be used in the case study evaluation?
  • What information must be obtained?
  • How will information be obtained?

Convening the meeting to determine eligibility

  • Who will be invited?
  • How will people be notified of the meeting?
  • How much notice will participants receive?

Conducting the meeting to determine eligibility

  • How will information be solicited and shared?
  • Will early intervention staff have input?
  • What steps will be taken to ensure that families are comfortable sharing information?
  • Will the IEP meeting take place directly after eligibility is determined or may families elect to have the IEP meeting conducted at a later date?
Table 4: Parent Satisfaction Survey
1. Staff from early intervention made my family aware of
the age three transition well in advance of our child's
third birthday.
Y N
2. We received information about the transition process,
including timelines, evaluations, and the differences
between El & pre-K.
Y N
3. We gave written permission for the El agency to release
our child's records to the school district.
Y N
4. We met with representatives from El and the school district
three months before our child's third birthday to write a
transition plan.
Y N
5. We received information about a variety of pre-K programs. Y N
6. We visited programs prior to the eligibility meeting. Y N
7. The eligibility meeting was held at a convenient time for us. Y N
8. We were encouraged to provide input at the eligibility
meeting.
Y N
9. We had input into the selection of IEP goals & objectives. Y N
10. We had input into the selection of our child's new program. Y N
11. EI worked to prepare our child for a change in programs. Y N
12. Our child did not have to wait for pre-K services to begin. Y N
13. Our priorities and concerns were respected throughout the
transition process.
Y N
14. Overall, we are satisfied with our child's transition. Y N

Table 4 presents a sample parent satisfaction survey. Parents, early intervention providers, public school staff, administrators, and staff from private preschools and child care centers can all provide information about current transition practices.

Conclusion

Different communities have different reasons for writing an interagency agreement. Some communities, like Apple Valley, may want to improve their transition practices. Other communities may be satisfied with how transitions are going, yet want to formalize their existing practices in a written document. Still other communities may want to write or update an agreement to help them clarify changing roles and responsibilities resulting from the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA. An agreement also may help the school district and private preschools and child care providers determine how they will collaborate to serve children in the least restrictive environment. Whatever the rationale, communities may find that their ability to write an agreement is enhanced when they follow the steps outlined in this article.

Fast-forward one year. Mitch and Ellie are walking out of an eligibility meeting for a child who would soon be turning three. Ellie turns to Mitch and says, "'You know, I have really enjoyed working with you on Rachel's transition. She's ready for preschool. Her family is ready. It has all gone so smoothly. Things sure have improved since we wrote the interagency agreement."

"I agree," said Mitch. "I think it was important for us to establish clear procedures for transition. But I also think that the working relationship we developed while writing the agreement has helped. I feel that the kids and their families are really benefiting."

Notes

The authors wish to thank Dale B. Fink and Michael W Wischnowski for their contributions to this material. This material was developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Grant No. HD24D50048. Additional information about transition Is available online at the following sites:

http://clas.uiuc.edu/

E-mail: facts.crc@uiuc.edu

You can reach D. Sarah Hadden by e-mail at haddends@uwec.edu

References

References

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Bruder, M. B., & Chandler, L. K. (1996). Transition. In S. L. Odom & M. E. McLean (Eds.), Early intervention/early childhood special education: Recommended practices (pp. 287-307). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Hains, A. H., Rosenkoetter, S. E., & Fowler, S. A. (1991). Transition planning with families in early intervention programs. Infants and Young Children, 3(4), 38-47.

Rosenkoetter, S. E., Hams, A. H., & Fowler, S. A. (1994). Bridging early services for children with special needs and their families: A practical guide for transition planning. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Rous, B., Hemmeter, M. L., & Schuster, J. (1994). Sequenced transitions to education in the public schools: A systems approach to transition planning. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 1 4 (3), 374-393.

Wischnowski, M. W, & McCollum. J. A. (1995). Managing conflict on local interagency coordinating councils. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 15(3), 281-295.

Young Exceptional Children, Vol 3 Number 4 Fall 2000 (pp. 2-7) Copyright © 2000 by the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children.