Special Ed Ghetto (or) a Seat in the Class?

Distressed parents complain that Seattle Public Schools isolates disabled children in failing schools. Officials insist they’re doing the best they can—and maybe those kids don’t belong with other students.

By Juliette Guilbert December 8, 2008 Published in the December 2008 issue of Seattle Met

ON A GOOD DAY, Noah Morehead-Weinstein traveled 40 minutes by taxi to his second-grade classroom. On a not-so-good day, the cab company blew him off for a cash fare, leaving him cooling his heels in the Delridge Community Center until another taxi could be dispatched or his mother could pick him up.

Like many special education students in Seattle schools, Noah, who has a form of autism, couldn’t get the services he needed in his neighborhood school. So the district paid for cab rides from his West Seattle home to Greenlake’s Bagley Elementary, which had an autism program. But Noah’s dad, Bryan Weinstein, says the transportation fiasco, distressing though it was, wasn’t the main problem.

“Noah has just been shipped off from school to school to school,” Weinstein says—three schools in three years. He spent first grade in an autism class at his neighborhood school, Cooper, then the district shuttered that program. He transferred to Bagley for second grade, where he thrived in an “inclusion” program that educates autistic kids alongside their typically developing peers. Midway, officials notified Noah’s parents that Cooper’s program was starting up again, and if they wanted a slot there Noah would have to transfer in March. “We were told that if we didn’t go back we might not have a place there for next year,” Weinstein says, “and we might not have a place at Bagley either.” Noah’s parents rejected the transfer, to avoid further disruption. This year, he entered third grade at Schmitz Park Elementary.

Stories like Noah’s convince many Seattle special ed parents that the district treats its most vulnerable students like second-class citizens, shunting them around and clustering them together to save money. “It’s not that uncommon to know people who have transferred four times in elementary school,” says Lauren Feaux, who has a son with autism and serves on the district’s special ed advisory council. “It’s grossly unfair.” Sometimes, Feaux says, the problem is structural: Rather than providing neighborhood schools the training and support needed to serve all students, the district groups special-needs kids by diagnosis in dedicated programs scattered around the city. Many of these programs cover only two or three grades, after which students must transfer. If children don’t fit into obvious categories, or their programs close or move, they may transfer even more often.

“That’s called redlining…It means that special education students get absolutely no choice.” —Lauren Feaux, Parent Member, Seattle Public Schools Special Education Advisory and Advocacy Council

Adjusting to a new school is tough for any kid. For many special-needs children, it’s downright traumatic. “Children with disabilities have an extraordinarily difficult time acclimatizing to shifts in placement,” says Seattle attorney William Dussault, who has represented the families of many special ed students. “As these programs shift from location to location, they make it virtually impossible for these children to ever establish a peer group.” But the district’s associate academic officer, Michelle Corker-Curry, says that “special ed [students are] not moving any more or any less than anyone else in the system, because we have a choice system. [All kids] get a new teacher every year, and you move from classroom to classroom.”

But last year, the district hired the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative, a nonprofit research group, to evaluate its special ed programs—and the resulting report was scathing. The researchers found a system that isolates kids in specialized programs transitions them more frequently than their general ed counterparts and—in at least 30 percent of cases—does not comply with a federal mandate to educate them in the “least restrictive [i.e., least isolated] environment” possible. The report recommended that the district stop “segregating” disabled kids and accommodate them in their neighborhood schools.

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But while educators nationwide generally support including disabled students in mainstream classrooms, actually doing so can be difficult. Parents and educators wrangle over what that “least restrictive environment” would be and how to accommodate kids with a dizzying array of disabilities, from fragile health to dyslexia. In Seattle, Corker-Curry says, some parents believe they’re best served in a sheltered, specialized environment.

Then there’s the money question: In 1975, Congress promised to eventually pay 40 percent of special ed costs, but actual support has never reached half that level. States and school districts take up the slack. “[Like] our colleagues across the nation, we all struggle with the same kind of scenario for children,” says Corker-Curry. “It is a tall order.” And even if Seattle decides to restructure its special ed, as the consultants recommend, she says major changes must await a new student assignment plan, due in 2010: “We have to change the whole system, and that’s going to require some time.”

Change can’t come soon enough for Lynda Finch. Finch’s son, a sweet-faced six-year-old diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (a type of neurological hypersensitivity), thrived in a “blended” special ed kindergarten at McGilvra Elementary, where he learned alongside nondisabled children. He even qualified for placement in a standard first-grade classroom, with extra support from the school’s resource room. But his spot at popular McGilvra did not extend to first grade, so he was reassigned to an underenrolled school that’s failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards. “The bigger issue,” Finch says, “was that he’d have to start over in a completely new school, at that highly vulnerable point between kindergarten and first grade, without any support.” She also feared that the more rigid approach the new school had adopted in an effort to raise standards, with a 90-minute class block and just one recess a day, would prove “a recipe for failure for him.”

“Special ed is not moving any more or less than anyone else in the system.” —Michelle Corker-Curry, Associate Academic Officer, Seattle Public Schools

Seven of the eight elementary schools in which the district approved new special ed programs this year fell below the federal benchmarks. Some of them had already enrolled a lot of special-needs kids even before the new program opened—30 percent of the student body, more than double the district average, at one school, nearly 20 percent at two others.

When parent Lauren Feaux presented her concerns about warehousing special ed kids in struggling schools, she says district officials told her the new programs went where there was room. But, she points out, those programs weren’t placed until May, after all other student assignments were completed. “After everyone else is already sitting at their desks for the next year, then they decide they are going to put the special education programs into the buildings. And the only buildings that have space are the ones no one else selected. That’s called redlining…. It means that special education students get absolutely no choice.” And that kids like Feaux’s son will continue bouncing around the district.

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