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Seattle Schools Expand Special Education Inclusion Program

Ann Dornfeld

When you were in school, chances are kids in special ed had their own classroom. These days, more and more districts integrate special ed students in mainstream classrooms. Seattle School District expanded its inclusion system this year. But many parents and teachers say the district is moving too quickly.


Marni Campbell is Executive Director of Special Education for the Seattle School District. She says in 2007, Seattle Schools commissioned an external review of the district's special education (special ed) system. The review found that the district's special ed students were being taught in too many specialized, segregated programs.

Campbell: "Too many of our students are spending too much time in isolated, small–group settings and not in inclusive settings with their typically–developing peers. So Seattle has really not been on par with other districts in terms of providing ways for students to successfully be learning with their peers."

The district already had inclusion programs for students with specific disabilities — like autism, for example. But those were only at certain schools, and could only accommodate small numbers of students.

So starting this school year, the Seattle School District introduced a new system: Integrated Comprehensive Services, or ICS. Beginning with this year's kindergarten and first grade students, some families were told to enroll special ed students in their neighborhood schools instead of in special programs. The district said special ed teachers and general ed teachers would work together to meet the students' needs. Campbell says the district prepared teachers and support staff for the new inclusion system.

Campbell: "We're constantly doing training, sort of large group, kind of more traditional professional development, and also we have two excellent coaches who work one–on–one with teachers and with school teams."

But there were problems in the ICS system from the beginning. That external review the district had ordered said that for ICS to work, elementary school special ed teachers should each have a caseload of 10 students. Instead, the district regularly assigns 22 students to those special ed teachers — and often more. Often, general ed teachers have to teach special ed curriculum they're not certified to teach. And sometimes, the parents have to teach it.

Ambrose: "She waits patiently for her turn. But the girls ignore her. They don't even look at her! Tina is beginning to feel sad. Nobody wants to play with her. What do you think Tina should do?"

Ryder: "Ask if she could play."

Bridget: "She could ask if she could play, yeah. What would you do if you saw Tina waiting for her turn?"

Ryder: "I would join her."

That's Bridget Ambrose and her son Ryder. She enrolled Ryder in kindergarten this year in an ICS classroom in the Seattle Schools. He has autism. Last year he went to a special preschool at the University of Washington where teachers are highly trained in autism disorders. But Bridget Ambrose says when he went to kindergarten, he didn't get the same kind of help.

Ambrose: "I was noticing him coming home really tired, hungry, hadn't eaten his lunch, was just sort of in a daze a lot — which, I felt like he was slipping from where he was."

Ambrose says because Ryder does really well academically and behaviorally, the teachers weren't picking up on the social skills he needs. She says the school recommended he be taken out of special ed — meaning he wouldn't get any social skills training or speech therapy. So Ambrose brought in Ryder's preschool teacher from the UW to explain the nuances of autism to his new teachers.

Despite the meeting, Ambrose says, the school pushed her to take him out of the special ed system.

Ambrose: "At that time I just felt that I didn't really have a support group, I didn't really know that I had so many options in terms of sort of fighting that and keeping it going and I — I just let it go, and I agreed to exit him."

Now Ambrose does social skills exercises with him after school, and takes him to a private speech therapist.

Ryder's story isn't unique. Every parent and teacher involved with ICS who was interviewed for this story said the teachers need more training, support staff and resources.

Shortly before the school year began, the district had a week–long training for teachers about the new ICS model. One of those teachers we'll call Jane. She teaches first grade in a Seattle elementary school. She asked that her real name not be used out of concern for her job.

Jane says the week of training consisted mostly of PowerPoint presentations about educational theory, with little practical information for teachers working with special education students.

Jane: "The entire week was spent teachers K–12 sitting and listening to lectures that had been scripted out, giving lots of theories, and never actually saying here's what ICS is. Here's what your class will look like. Here are some strategies. It was a really frustrating week."

Jane has two students in her first grade class who qualify for special ed services. They both require social skills lessons. The trouble was, Jane says, she wasn't given any social skills curriculum. She finally found a partial one in the back of a supply closet.

Jane: "It's curriculum that's intended for kindergarten. It has puppets. The puppets were taken last year. It has videos. The videos don't match with the second–year curriculum that I found hidden in the back of the books. And I've gotten no training on it."

But Jane says she can't always improvise. Special ed students can have behavioral issues she doesn't know how to handle. They can lash out at their teachers or peers, or throw books or chairs. She's worried about the safety of her students.

Jane: "More than 10 times this year there have been moments I have had to tell my students, 'Boys and girls, go to your safe spot.' And that's a corner of our classroom."

The Seattle Special Education Parent–Teacher–Student Association (PTSA) echoes these concerns. The parents' organization meets regularly with school district leaders to try to improve services to special ed students. In February, the Special Ed PTSA published a scathing position statement about the ICS system.

It says: "After observing and participating in the new model for the past five months, we judge that the district has no shared vision, no authoritative leadership, and a lack of adequate resources to provide truly inclusive educational services."

The district's head [Executive Director] of Special Education, Marni Campbell, says the district gauges the success of ICS through student progress reports, teacher feedback and family surveys.

Marni Campbell: "And the results are very positive. Families are by and large feeling very good about the services their students are getting. And where they're not, we've been able to move really quickly and put additional supports in place."

The Seattle School District does not have a good track record of meeting students' special education requirements as guaranteed by federal law.

In Washington state, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) handles complaints from parents and advocates who claim a district is failing to meet special ed students' needs. A public records request KUOW filed with OSPI showed that between 2005 and 2010, the office handled complaints on behalf of 45 special ed students in the Seattle Schools. OSPI required Seattle Schools to take corrective action in 41 out of those 45 cases. The corrective action generally included more staff training, better communication with parents, and more specialized education for students.

Seattle Schools plans to expand the ICS system into the rest of the district over the next few years.

I'm Ann Dornfeld, KUOW News.

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