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

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.


“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.”



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.

Supporting Families

Here’s the breakdown:

Total students………………………………….19,696
Specific learning disorder……………………8,515
Developmental delay…………………………2,862
Other health disability………………………..2,731
Autism spectrum disorder…………………..1,474
Intellectual disability………………………….1,133
Emotional disability…………………………..1,089
Speech or language disabilities………………737
Multiple disabilities……………………………..586
Deaf ……………………………………………………108
Orthopedic disability………………………………99
Visual disability including blindness………..64
Traumatic brain injury……………………………57

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.)



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.