What Special Education looks like now in Hawaii's Public Schools
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An Alternative to Special Education
Schools such as Makaha and Mililani have their own methods when it comes helping special education students. Helemano Elementary School in Wahiawa is no different when it comes to its 63 students who have special needs (10 percent of the total student body). Yet the school wanted to hone in on helping struggling students before they get into special education—if they even need it.
It’s called Response to Intervention, or RTI (education loves acronyms.) Helemano started RTI in 2008, focusing its efforts on reading and writing. It’s not a special-education program, but it does provide targeted instruction, in addition to regular classes, for struggling students. RTI isn’t after-school tutoring, or a summer-school program; it’s done during the school day. Students are pulled from class to work with special-education teachers in small groups.
Students are assessed on age-appropriate skills and curriculum and then, based on their results, are grouped into Tier 1, 2 or 3. The higher the tier, the more instructional support for the student.
“We need to have this belief that all children can learn,” says Helemano principal Ernest Muh. “The thinking was, ‘This kid is struggling and is behind, let’s test him for special ed,’” he says, explaining that special education placement was often the first and only approach. “RTI is a shift in thinking,” he says.
It’s an educational shift that’s worked. Since the program’s inception, the number of students being evaluated for special education at Helemano has dropped from 49 in the 2009-2010 school year to 19 in the 2011-2012 school year. The students have scored higher on the Hawaii State Assessment reading scores, too, from 58 percent in 2009 to 84 percent in 2012.
Response to Intervention is being done at every grade level at the school, but, when it comes to reading and writing, it’s most critical for the little ones.
Ten kindergarteners walk in a straight line to their next class on a sunny Thursday. Inside, they break into three groups, in which three special-education teachers go over the day’s lesson. It’s noisy, but they manage block out the other groups. They learn to sound out and write down words such as “trash,” “rash,” “chug,” “chant.” Special-education teacher Julie Do Solarz has her group write a complete sentence, then read it to her. “The big girl chants to her parents,” reads one freckled-faced girl.
“We feel better, now, when we refer a child to special education,” says Do Solarz after class. She teaches kindergarten, first-and fifth-grade students in the RTI program. She says some children are mistakenly placed into special education—these are known as “gap children.” “A gap child is a child who has potential to learn, but has not been given effective instruction,” she says. With the literacy success rate of RTI, both Do Solarz and Muh say they hope to expand the program for math within the next couple of years.
WHAT CONDITIONS ARE AFFECTING HAWAII'S SPECIAL EDUCATION STUDENTS?
Here’s the breakdown:
Determining whether a child’s school has an RTI program, or if co-teaching is a good fit for an individual special-needs student can be overwhelming process for a parent or guardian.
Special education is inherently convoluted. Ivalee Sinclair and Susan Rocco tell every family this. They themselves find the state’s special-education system “complex, hard to access and complicated,” as Sinclair puts it. Both women each have special-needs children of their own, adults now, and have been working as advocates in the system for more than two decades.
Sinclair and Rocco are involved in the Special Parent Information Network (SPIN) and the Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC). The network is funded by the DOE, but is housed under the state Department of Health. Rocco explains that, by being administratively under DOH, families can feel comfortable in obtaining information and venting any frustrations they may have with the educational process.
“The system is well intentioned, but it’s not family centered,” says Sinclair. “It just looks at the child’s needs in isolation and often families feel they’re not given all the information they’re entitled to get…It’s a very common thing for families to feel that it’s them against the system.”
This is evidenced by the high rate of due-process complaints in special education. This happens when a family and the DOE can’t agree, usually over a child’s special-education placement, or the services she or he is getting.
“A lot of people [in the DOE] are stuck in the mindset, ‘This is what we have to offer, take it or leave it,’” says Sinclair, of the sometimes adversarial stance the DOE can take.
That’s when lawyers get involved. In the 2010-2011 school year, there were 139 hearing requests, 92 of which resulted in the department paying for the child to attend private school for the year to receive special-education services. This was made possible in 2011, when Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a law mandating that DOE has to pay for private education for special-needs children if it’s ordered by the court in a due-process hearing.
Most parents of special-education children don’t resort to this, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t face challenges, especially when it comes to knowing what’s going on at their child’s school.
Linda Tabora, whose 10th-grade son has autism spectrum disorder and attends Mililani High School, has experienced first hand being left out from campus news. She says the school’s website, which provides login access to parents, is woefully out-of-date. And, as the parent of a more severely disabled child, she’s often not aware of what is going on the rest of campus, even small things. “I didn’t know the school was selling Christmas trees in December,” she says. Regular classrooms have in-class morning broadcasts, but fully self-contained classes don’t. (However, communication can be more challenging with certain disabled students.)