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


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“They have a sense of self and are more motivated,” says the fifth-year Makaha teacher. “And they volunteer in class,” she adds. That morning, when Chang called on students to act out the week’s vocabulary words, every hand in class shot up. “You wouldn’t get a peep out of them before [in the resource classes],” she says.

Inclusion classes also help children with behavioral problems. “One of my kids would have tantrums all the time and storm out,” says general-education teacher Gregg Nakamura, who has been co-teaching with Eugene Pascual at Makaha for four years. “In a resource room, all the behaviors feed off each other. But in [an inclusion class], now he calms down faster and actually does work.”

The teaching model is also happening 30 miles away at Mililani High School, where there are 37 co-teaching teams for the school’s 300 special-needs students, out of a student body of 2,500, says vice principal Christine Alexander.

“Co-teaching supports not only our special-education students, but the kids who are slow learners, who are not in special education,” she says.

Successful co-teaching requires balance in the classroom. Alexander, who was formerly a special-education teacher, explains that only about 25 percent of the students in a given inclusion class should be in special education. That way, teachers are still able to provide targeted attention to the special-education students, but can also teach to the class as a whole.

Inclusion classes also help some special-education students get out of special education entirely. “The whole goal of special education is to get students back into general education,” says Karen Ginoza, a retired special-education teacher, who taught at Royal Elementary School and is currently a Special Olympics coach.

According to the DOE, last school year 293 students successfully exited special education and went into general education. These are usually children with specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. (This doesn’t mean that students with more severe disabilities don’t also benefit from co-teaching.)

While co-teaching is robust at schools such as Makaha and Mililani, it’s not happening at every public school. Debra Farmer, the administrator of the Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support Branch, acknowledges that co-teaching is “growing … I think you’ll see a range of implementation.”

Yet, according to a 2011 state-commissioned report on Hawaii’s special-education services, the West Ed report, the DOE isn’t exactly supporting schools in establishing special education initiatives such as co-teaching. Says the report, “The Hawaii DOE left the implementation of the directives to the districts, complexes and schools, without guidelines or specifics on how to implement them.”

Getting co-teaching started in a school naturally requires the principal’s support, as well as her or his teachers’ buy-in, which can be a challenge, particularly for the general-education teachers.

Zach DiIonno saw this firsthand during the three years he taught at ‘Ilima Intermediate School in ‘Ewa Beach. DiIonno, a Teach for America special-education teacher originally from New Jersey, was able to start co-teaching with another ‘Ilima teacher, but he says many of his colleagues were reluctant. “The way I saw it at my school was that, for the most part, special-education teachers were relegated to second-class teachers,” he says. “It was tough for me and some of my colleagues to really do new things, because there’s a lack of trust generally about the role of the special-ed teacher, and [they also don’t want to] relinquish any type of control to the classroom. Teachers were like, ‘This is my classroom.’” Like Makaha, Ilima, has a higher special-education population, about 10 percent, says DiIonno. Co-teaching eventually got off the ground at the school, and has continued since. At the end of DiIonno’s tenure, five of his students no longer needed to be in special education.

A Diversified Approach

While most educators agree the co-teaching model is beneficial for a majority of special- education students, it’s not suitable for all children. That’s the individualized part of the Individualized Educational Program (IEP).

When students need more targeted services, they go to a resource classroom, where there are often only between five and 10 students. Ginoza says she was able to work one on one with her students at Royal Elementary in a resource class setting. “Having a resource room enabled me to meet their needs, because they came to me for two hours a day and I provided reading, writing, language arts and math,” she says. In fact, she questions whether special-education students in an inclusion class are “able to get that individualized kind of help,” she says. “If we want our students to make progress, they really need individualized assistance.”

For more severely disabled students, campuses have “fully self-contained classrooms,” designated classrooms where students—all of whom will graduate with certificates of completion—spend their school days. There are five of these classes at Mililani High School, in portable trailers clustered on one end of the campus.

One Wednesday morning, the rain is relentless, but inside, the classroom is bustling. There are eight students, all of whom have autism spectrum disorder, and 12 adults in the room, including a special education teacher, educational assistants and skills trainers. A couple of students have two skills trainers each. Some students are working on speech therapy; one student uses an Ipad to help him, while others make Chex mix for the upcoming Easter holiday. At Mililani, these FSC classes focus on community-based instruction.

“We do life-skills training,” says special-education teacher Azure Makinney. So, instead of studying trigonometry in math, the students learn basic math skills as they apply to money (if something costs $6.99, and you have a $5 bill and three $1 bills, how much change will you receive?), instead of English papers, the students focus on vocabulary. They also cook once a week in class, as well as wash some items of clothing on campus.

“My main concern is for them to be functional in society, and as independent as possible,” says Todd Cambonga, another special-education education teacher.

They’re also not in the classroom all day. Some students are in the general-education P.E. and ceramics courses, but the Mililani special-education department is proactive in making sure that all of its special needs students in the community based instruction program get out into the community. For example, the class goes on weekly shopping trips to buy ingredients for whatever they’re cooking or baking. And, through a partnership with Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (under the state Department of Health and Human Services), its junior and senior students get stipends for working at places such as Zippy’s, Safeway and Taco Bell. They get there via public transportation. “They know the bus schedule better than I do,” says Debbie Hagihara with a laugh. “All of this is good training for them to become community contributors.”

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