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What Special Education looks like now in Hawaii's Public Schools


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It’s been 20 years since a class-action lawsuit forced the state to dramatically overhaul the way it provided special-education services to the students who needed them. Two decades after the Felix consent decree, here is what special education looks like in Hawaii’s schools today.

The word was “lurch.”

Makaha Elementary teachers Sherilynn Chang (left) and Noelle Pezzi.

Two boys stood in front of the classroom as teacher Sherilynn Chang set a scene for the pair to act out. The fourth-graders had to demonstrate they knew what the word meant. Chang described an amusement park. First they went on a Ferris wheel, then a roller coaster and, finally, zoomed around in bumper cars. They crashed into each other, causing each boy to lurch forward in his car. The boys abruptly jerked forward, their hands at imaginary wheels. “Good!” says Chang. The class clapped and two more kids volunteered to go next.

This is one of Makaha Elementary’s co-teaching English Language Arts classes. Co-teaching is just what it sounds like. There are two teachers in the classroom; a general-education teacher and a special-education teacher, working together with their special-education students. These inclusion classes help reduce the time special-education students spend in separate classrooms, where many have traditionally spent their school days, isolated from their peers. In education speak, the inclusion philosophy provides the “least restrictive environment” for the child. It’s a teaching model happening across the nation. There’s a push for inclusion classes locally, although it hasn’t been executed consistently statewide.

It’s the latest of many special education experiments that have been tried over the years. The state can’t afford to drop the ball, as it did 20 years ago. This year marks the anniversary of the 1993 lawsuit filed on behalf of Maui student Jennifer Felix, contending the state violated federal law by failing to provide appropriate mental health and educational services for children with disabilities. The following year, the state agreed to a consent decree, putting Hawaii under federal supervision, with a year 2000 deadline for the state departments of Education and Health to dramatically overhaul their special-education services.

More than a decade after the lawsuit was filed, and after approximately $1 billion was funneled into special education, court oversight ended in 2005. (See sidebar for more on the consent decree itself.) Thanks to the consent decree, there’s now a more efficient system in place to evaluate children who need special education and, if they do, an array of services at their disposal. There are currently 183,251 students in Hawaii’s public-education system (including 9,593 students who attend the state’s 32 charter schools), 19,696 of whom are in special education, almost 11 percent of the student population. If the state’s overall implementation were given a grade, though, it would read, “needs improvement.” The department is progressing, just not at the pace it should. When it comes to getting co-teaching off the ground in schools, supporting special-education teachers and helping families navigate the complex roadmap to special-education services, the system falls short.

Last school year, 5,419 students went through a formal evaluation process to determine whether or not they were eligible for special-education services—3,849 were. The process takes 60 days, and often begins with a parent requesting an evaluation, which the state does at no cost. (Anyone, such as physicians, caregivers or teachers, can refer a child for assessment, but it requires parental consent.)

The parents or guardians then meet with the school to talk about any concerns and gather more information, such as test scores or homework, before beginning the evaluation. Depending on what the child is being evaluated for, certain specialists are brought in, such as a speech pathologist or a psychologist to administer an IQ test.

After the evaluation is over, everyone meets again to discuss the results. There are 14 eligible categories which a child can be placed into for special education, including autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, emotional disability, hard-of-hearing, deaf and speech disability, among others. If the child is eligible, then the school develops an individualized education program, or IEP, for the student. If the child doesn’t qualify, often she or he goes into “comprehensive student support systems,” or educational services for struggling students, just short of special education.

Every school year, the parents, teachers and other service providers meet to reassess the child’s IEP, discuss her or his progress and make any necessary adjustments to the child’s program. Students with more severe disabilities are in special education for the duration of their education, but last school year, 293 students exited special education and went into general education. Approximately 59 percent of special-education students graduate with a high school diploma. Their more severely disabled peers graduate with certificates of completion and can stay in school until age 20.

Changing the Teaching Mindset

“It’s like we’re married for 10 months out of the year,” says Makaha Elementary special-education teacher Noelle Pezzi with a laugh. She’s referring to her co-teaching partnership with general-education teacher Sherilynn Chang. Pezzi is one of the state’s 2,184 special education teachers, 1,482 of whom are on Oahu. It’s her and Chang’s first year in the classroom together, but it’s a teaching model that’s been going on at Makaha for more than a decade.

Like a marriage, the co-teaching philosophy relies on communication. That and ample planning, about twice as much as goes into teaching a general-education class, Chang estimates. The teachers work together to create dynamic lesson plans that will not only engage their general-education students, but also motivate and teach their special-education students. For many, it requires a shift in their approach to teaching.

“Every time I think of a lesson, I think of the different learning styles,” says Chang. “The visual learners, the kinesthetic learners, the auditory learners. It’s changed the mindset of teaching for me.”

Co-teaching is happening on every grade level, says vice principal Cecile LeMar. Makaha Elementary has a high percentage of special-education students: Out of the school’s total student population of 650 students, 103 are in special education, almost 16 percent.

For Pezzi, it’s been a refreshing change from being in a resource classroom, where she worked with special education students who were pulled from a general-education class to receive specialized support. The biggest difference, though, is the one she’s noticed in her students. This year, she’s working with seven students, including those with specific learning disabilities, speech disabilities and a student who is hard of hearing.

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