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


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Advocates such as Sinclair and Rocco try to fill the information void where they can. Often, though, parents seek out support groups and activities best suited for their child and her or his disability. Deanna Ferrick, another parent of a Mililani High School student, a senior with Down Syndrome, found comfort and friendship—for both her and her daughter—by joining the Down Syndrome Ohana of Hawaii. “We have once-a-month outings, potlucks,” says Ferrick. “It’s been great for networking, and I’ve learned from parents with children who are older than [my daughter].” For example, the joys and tribulations her family would experience when her daughter would go through puberty. “I freaked out, but she was great,” says Ferrick, with a boisterous laugh.

Another outlet families have is the Community Children’s Councils. There are 17 councils in the state—eight of which are on Oahu—that were established by recommendation of the court monitor during the Felix Consent Decree. “They’re a feedback mechanism for families,” says administrator Steven Vannatta.

The councils meet once a month, usually on a school campus. Parents, teachers, mental-health and education specialists, DOE representatives and local nonprofit staff are usually present. Sometimes even students are there. At a recent Central District council meeting, in the cheerleading coach’s office at Mililani High School, members discussed SPIN’s upcoming family conference—it’s safari themed this year—changes to parental written consent under IDEA and the importance of parents being present at a child’s IEP meeting.

The highlight of the meeting though, was talking about prom. For the second year in a row, Ferrick is spearheading a prom for O‘ahu’s special-education population. This year, she estimates that 125 will attend (including parents and education specialists). The theme is Peter’s Prom, in honor of a student who attended last year, but has since passed away.

“There’s food, dancing, photos—just like a traditional prom,” says Ferrick. Some students even coordinate limos to drop them off and pick them up. “Of course, safety is the biggest issue, then the party, but the experience is just awesome.”

Tabora says she’s hoping to persuade her son into going. “He watches TV, and sees you have to have a date, so he’s decided he’s not going to go,” she says.

“Oh, everyone goes stag and dances with each other,” says Ferrick. “That’s the best part!”

The two women continue talking about prom, how much more expensive it’s gotten since they were in high school. Then the bell rings; school is done for the day. They head out to the portable trailers to pick up their kids, normal as could be.

The Felix Consent Decree dominated the educational agenda and local headlines for more than a decade. The 1993 lawsuit forced the state to significantly alter how it provided special education and mental health services for Hawaii’s disabled students in public schools, to comply with a federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The consent decree required that both the state departments of Education and Health have a process in place to first identify children with special needs, and then provide appropriate services, in school, for them. Over the course of 10 years, this resulted in $1 billion in spending specifically for special education. Toward what was all this money going? More special-education teachers—there are currently 2,184 in the state—training and professional development for these teachers and contracts for specialists, such as psychologists, speech pathologists, educational assistants and more.

“A lot of services were made available for children,” says Ivalee Sinclair, who heads the Special Education Advisory Council. “A lot of changes occurred.” Sinclair was a member of the writing team that outlined the implementation process under the consent decree.

But, as with any major overhaul, the execution wasn’t exactly straightforward. The main problem was accountability, in terms of where the money was going and the guidelines in place for administrators to establish and follow. In 2001, for the first time in the state’s history, the Legislature formed a joint Senate and House investigation committee to scrutinize how the two state departments were doing their jobs. Meanwhile, the courts were still monitoring the state.

“We questioned the finances,” says Rep. Scott Saiki, who led the House side of the investigation. Saiki says that Felix became Hawaii’s “test of government’s ability to implement changes. The state in a lot of ways failed.”

The investigation found the state wasn’t properly monitoring its funding, an issue that continues to plague the DOE. Legislators also found there weren’t proper guidelines in place for outside contracts for special-education service providers.

Yet, in May 2005, the federal courts found the state in compliance and the consent decree ended.

“I think Hawaii is in a better position today,” says Saiki. The consent decree put enough pressure on the state to right itself when it comes to special-education services. Today, community partnerships are strong, and many schools have adapted and found their own way of providing the necessary services for their special education populations.


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