Special education reform: opening closed doorsMarch 16, 2016
(Portland, Oregon) Krista Foley used to cry every day after school.
A special education teacher turned general education teacher, Foley even had a small class size. She seemed primed to offer the blended classroom that has become the holy grail of special education.
The wall between special education and general education at Portland Public Schools is dissolving, as educational thought moves toward a culture of inclusivity. But many teachers and parents who support the idea of integrating special ed students into regular classrooms are nonetheless worried about how PPS is doing it.
After three months of playing “behavior whack-a-mole,” Foley says she is done. The seven-year Portland Public Schools teacher left mid-year for a neighboring school district, which she declined to name.
When she was a teacher of first- and second-graders at Beach Elementary School, Foley says she had kids breaking rulers to cut other people, refusing to sit in a seat, or shouting: “You’re a bitch. Don’t listen to her.”
“It’s been a crazy ride. I have never had an experience like this,” Foley says. She had no other adult in the classroom and, she says, no help from administrators.
“My last school did not have these issues because there was a tight protocol for behaviors,” she says. “There’s always been a plan in place to deal with these and there’s not a plan in place.”
For its part, Portland Public Schools says all teachers are offered professional development, that behavior plans are in place and that children with escalating misbehavior are removed from the classroom and addressed. A spokeswoman for the district, Christine Miles, says Beach Elementary School has evaluations and plans in place to identify and address issues, including acute behaviors.
“They are not left in the classroom to linger,” Miles says.
Nevertheless, Foley and a dozen other teachers, parents and school board members the Portland Tribune has talked to say something is seriously wrong with special education at Portland Public Schools. No one, however, is quite sure what.
In talking with other teachers, “There’s a lot of agreement and a lot of compassion, but not a lot of solutions,” Foley says.
In the 60 years since Brown vs. Board of Education ended enforced racial segregation in public schools, a different kind of educational segregation persists. It is based on children’s medical, social, emotional and intellectual differences.
A federal law governs special education accommodations — the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The rules are the same for everyone, but the game is played differently in every state, every district, every school and every classroom.
Part of that is by design. The IDEA promises “free and appropriate public education” in the “least-restrictive environment” for students based on individual need. Parents, teachers, aides, therapists and students participate in annual Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. When the meetings go well, they end in a mutually agreeable list of the student’s extra needs and the services the school and other specialists will provide to meet those needs. When they don’t go well, they end in lawsuits and tears and broken promises.
The IEP process also determines where a student is placed. A special education student does not have the automatic right to attend his or her neighborhood school.
Mary Pearson, Portland Public Schools’ director of special education, has a laudable goal to reduce and even eliminate educational segregation based on disability. Called Reach 2020, the program aims to offer full inclusion to all special education students in the district by the year 2020.
Portland not meeting targets
It is an effort that has been a long time coming.
With nearly 7,000 students who have a special education designation, PPS has a sub-optimal track record. In 2015, the four-year graduation rate for students with disabilities was 49 percent, far lower than the state target of 72 percent. Even after five years of high school, only 57 percent of PPS students with disabilities graduated; the state target is 77 percent.
A child can qualify for special education based on a wide range of difficulties — 13 different categories, from deafness to physical impairment, autism to specific learning disabilities.
Kids with significant behavior problems also qualify but can be uniquely difficult to manage in a mainstream class. According to a recent district report, only 6 percent of PPS’ “behavior kids” ever leave their segregated setting.
With a program implemented last school year to eliminate two behavior classrooms for kindergarten to second grade (serving about 10 students total) and convert those staff into a roving team of behavior specialists, Pearson began to end the pipeline that left students out of the mainstream.
But parents and teachers who support Reach 2020’s goals say the program isn’t being implemented with enough staff or other supports. Overwhelmed teachers say this program is colliding with other innovative programs at the district — including well-intentioned efforts to reduce the disparity between the percentage of black students who are expelled or suspended and the much lower percentage of white students who are.
If they haven’t already left the district, many teachers and parents of special education students say they fantasize about it.
Bailing on PPS
Angel Rodriguez doesn’t live in the district anymore. But as a former organizer in the special education community, he still gets calls from parents and testifies at Portland Public Schools board meetings.
“I’ve probably gotten more phone calls (this year) than I’ve ever received in the last five years,” Rodriguez says. “If you don’t have the right things put in place for (students), then obviously they are going to fail and they’re going to act out because you’re not meeting their needs at all ... If there’s not the right support there, that’s not acceptable, not only for the child but for the (general education) teacher.”
Rodriguez moved in 2013 to Newberg to get better services for his 12-year-old daughter, who has autism. He says the tone is different in his new district. He no longer feels on the back burner.
“I wish I didn’t have to move. I was kind of forced to ... I’m thankful that I’m privileged enough to do that. Many of these families are not,” he says. “I think the biggest thing, the reason why people leave PPS, is they feel they’re not listened to.”
Rodriguez says he thinks the district is looking at programs and resources on a school or district level — looking at numbers instead of kids.
“I like Mary Pearson, I think she’s a great fit for that job, (but) ... she’s not running the show. She can only do so much,” he says.
The bottom line?
“Do I trust the staff that’s taking care of my child? Yes,” he says. “Do I trust the administration? No.”
Parent wearies of battling district
Vanessa Smith has settled with the district three times over violations of her children’s Individual Education Programs. The last time, in December 2014, she won the right to keep her child in a separate behavior classroom instead of the general education classroom he had been in for three months without her knowledge.
Smith, who adopted three boys with special needs, is also a special education teacher, at a school she declined to name. “As a teacher, you want to set kids up for success, not failure,” she says.
But even as someone who knows every lever to pull and every button to press, Smith still finds dealing with the district very difficult.
“It’s been a constant. I feel like I’ve had to be in constant advocate mode and it’s just felt terrible,” she says.
Smith is frustrated that she is not seeing results of the equity work promoted as a top priority at the district. She says her children, who are African-American, and all special education children should be a top priority for intervention.
“All the research says that they are more likely to drop out. They are more likely to be abused. They are more likely to go to jail,” she says. “The investment that we make now can change the world because it can change the direction of so many children.”
Smith says she is very worried about what next year holds for her eighth-grade son, as there is no behavior classroom for him to go to in high school. The reason is because students in segregated classrooms cannot earn a standard diploma.
Smith says she doesn’t care.
“I would rather have my child feel successful than for them to be ‘college-ready,’ ” she says. “I want my children to be good, well-rounded human beings that make the world a better place. I don’t think they necessarily need to go to college to do that. I think that children are individuals, and when we stop treating them as individuals, there’s a problem.”
FACT Oregon is a nonprofit based in Clackamas County — actually, right inside Clackamas Education Service District offices. One of its primary goals is to help families through the IEP process that determines eligibility of special education services.
“The IEP determines what the services are, not the present availability of personnel,” says Executive Director Roberta Dunn.
The onus, however, is on the parents. The IEP process is set up so that if a parent has an issue with the services the school is providing, they need to state it at the beginning of the meeting. If there is continued disagreement with what the school is providing, the responsibility again is on the parent to find a lawyer and complain.
Parents who are struggling with their own disability, a language barrier, a lack of resources, a lack of education, substance abuse — or the simple and inherent reality of their child’s extra needs — can find navigating the system nearly impossible.
“It’s something that FACT works very hard to combat,” Dunn says, adding: “It is something that we find that happens quite frequently.”
Dunn says her organization has not seen an uptick in parents using FACT’s services this year, despite the changes implemented so far as part of Reach 2020. However, she has heard that implementation is “rocky.”
“The thing about Portland Public is they are such a large district,” she says. “Changing the direction a ship is going at sea really does come into play. That ship is large.”
Dunn believes the effort is worthwhile, though.
“When that child is in a general education classroom with the supports and the modifications that they need, they become so much more substantially statistically likely to graduate from high school,” she says. “The data is so clear on the positive outcomes on being educated in the least-restricted environment and on the negative of being segregated.”
Pushing for inclusive classrooms
“Special education is supposed to be a service, not a place,” says Angela Jarvis-Holland, executive director of All Born (In), a Portland organization pushing for more integrated special education.
Jarvis-Holland says she supports Reach 2020 and that full inclusion has potential benefits for everyone.
“There’s a lot of resources tied up in special education that if they are in the general education classroom ... there’s a lot of ways that this could be an enrichment,” she says. “I’m grateful for the good teachers that I’ve met and the people who have been willing to embrace risk and change. It can be done, and it is being done in pockets.”
But Jarvis-Holland says she also believes teachers and parents who say they are having a hard time.
“I think it’s a tough transition for a district with such a long history,” she says. The segregation of students in special education may be too familiar a model for Portland teachers, she says. “We’ve had a long history of ‘those kids down in that room.’ What if they’re not ‘those kids?’ ”
Still, Jarvis-Holland puts responsibility on the shoulders of general education teachers to step up to the plate and administrators to make it a priority. “Have we seen awareness work done or do they just leave it for an untrained aide to work out?”
The executive director and mother of two, including a Benson Polytechnic High School student who has Down syndrome, believes districts could realize more efficiency if classes were integrated, as funds tied up in special education could be released into general education. She says she has seen it work well with her own son.
But Jarvis-Holland acknowledges that no matter how the pie is sliced, it is too small.
“It’s not a tough time because of Reach 2020; it’s just a tough time for everybody,” she says. “It’s not like you walk through a door called ‘inclusion’ and everything is wonderful. You walk through a door called ‘inclusion’ and it’s the mess that everyone else is in. Our schools are under-resourced for everyone. Period.”
She adds: “We can’t undo civil and human rights because of that. We’re in this together.”