Marlin Independent School District has hired a new special education director, one school officials say will improve identification of disabilities in students.

Teri Rinewalt, Waco ISD’s former assistant director of special education who headed up the district’s dyslexia program, will start in Marlin ISD this week to help restructure its dyslexia program, Superintendent Michael Seabolt announced during a school board meeting Tuesday night.

She will then move into the district’s special education director position at the Falls County Co-Op in January, Seabolt said. The district joined the co-op last spring after a reduction in force that eliminated several special education positions.

“We discovered districtwide we only have six children identified as dyslexic. I want to put that in context,” Seabolt said. “We should be around 200 to 250, so we’re extremely under that.”

Marlin ISD has more than 800 students, and after a tumultuous last two years dealing with districtwide changes, employee grievances and the state’s appointment of a board of managers, Seabolt said the district is finally able to focus on what’s best for students.

Marlin ISD has been on the state’s improvement required list for six consecutive years and has been working to stave off possible closure the past two years. And while Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced earlier this year he had no plans to close the district, TEA officials said in August nothing would be decided until spring.

Hiring Rinewalt is a step in the right direction, one that could also help improve students’ state testing scores, Seabolt said. If the district can better identify student needs, then the district can provide better resources and support for those students, he said.

“I applied for the director position because I thoroughly enjoyed working with special populations in Waco ISD and saw the benefits to training, processes and support for students, teachers and parents,” Rinewalt wrote in a message to the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday evening. “I saw an opportunity to be able to do that in my own department in Falls County Co-op and decided to apply. I started early because I can get the ball rolling in Marlin ISD with administrative support.”

Rinewalt had been with Waco ISD since 2015. She spearheaded a turnaround for Waco ISD’s dyslexia department by revamping training, testing, reporting and support services, she said in July.

The number of students identified with dyslexia in Waco ISD has more than doubled since the 2014-2015 school year.

But she’s also at the center of an open United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights investigation regarding a complaint alleging retaliation while she worked for Waco ISD.

The investigation started in fall 2016, initiated by a district employee who filed a separate Office for Civil Rights report claiming the district failed to properly test for dyslexia in more than 50 students whose native language is Spanish, which has since been closed.

Rinewalt publicly denied the allegations made in the now-closed OCR investigation in October, but as of Tuesday evening, the retaliation investigation was still pending, Waco ISD spokesperson Kyle DeBeer said.

Yet Seabolt said he’s not concerned about the investigation and called Rinewalt the strongest candidate for the position. He said Rinewalt called him and said she was ready to leave, adding that the district could use her help.

“I didn’t know anything about it, but I know our attorney is the general counsel for Waco and I talked with him,” Seabolt said. “A lot of recommendations for her, she’s very professional.”

Rinewalt’s hire also indirectly ties into one of the district’s top student progress goals heading into 2021. Four years from now, the district wants to increase the percent of kindergarten through second-grade students reading on grade level from 38 to 54 percent. State standardized testing starts in third grade.

When Rinewalt starts, she’ll be reviewing reading data and analyzing it to determine flags for Dyslexia tendencies that will help Marlin ISD refer support to the correct students, Rinewalt wrote. The district will also be determining the level of training needed for staff and parents, she stated.

In the last six weeks, the district has been using computer-based reading assessments, workshops and other resources to help students adapt and improve on an individual level, Assistant Superintendent Remy Godfrey said during a presentation at the board meeting.

Because of this, 48 percent of kindergarten through second-grade students have already seen an improvement since the start of the school year, said Van LeJeune, the district’s teaching and learning director.

“That 48 percent growth, that’s not the average,” LeJuene said. “That’s 48 percent showed significant growth. We’re still nowhere near our project growth, but the fact they’ve shown that much growth in just six weeks is indicative of the quality instruction going on in the classrooms.”

Waco ISD won’t fill Rinewalt’s previous position immediately and is considering restructuring positions in wake of the departure, DeBeer said.

“It’s a promotion for her, and we certainly understand why she wanted that growth in her career,” DeBeer said. “Teri has been incredible for our special education students and that program. We’re sorry to see her go because she was such an asset to those students. We wish her the best even though we’re sad to see her leave.”

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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