HISD Still Has a Long Way to Go In Special Ed

Trustee Wanda Adams cutting to the chase.
Trustee Wanda Adams cutting to the chase. Screengrab from HISD TV

Put on the spot at last night's school board meeting and asked to rate how Houston ISD continues to handle its special education students and programs on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (we presume super duper), an independent auditor basing her comment on the "ideal" gave the district a "1."

She swiftly and helpfully followed that up with the observation that compared to districts with similar student size and demographics and financial constraints, she would give it a "3."

So what's to feel worse about: that special education in HISD is failing its students or that if these students went to other similar districts, they probably couldn't expect any better, that this is middle of the road, par for the course?

In putting the best face on all this, HISD sent out a press release later last night entitled "American Institutes for Research report shows HISD has taken steps to improve special education program"  and included quotes from administrator Dr. Grenita Lathan, HISD's chief academic officer, that the district was on the right track.

The release cited the areas of strength the AIR found in its commissioned look into the district's operation which included: a "proactive approach" to addressing parents' concerns and a dedicated and knowledgeable staff. And it listed bullet points in general terms about recommendations for the future without saying anything about whether the district and its schools are doing these things now, other than to acknowledge that the district's  special ed procedures should be simplified and clarified.

Slow paperwork and the mistaken idea — in violation of federal law — that students would have to go through a certain special ed teaching program before they could even be assessed for special education are among the factors that continue to keep the percentage of students receiving special ed services around the 7.3 percent mark — a low amount that raised questions about the district's special ed services in the first place.

If you hadn't attended the meeting or watched it on HISD-TV or read the report,  you would have an entirely different take on how well HISD is doing with its special ed efforts.  You might even think everything is pretty much fine.

Trustee Wanda Adams was the board member asking AIR representatives  to "be honest" after they presented an overall assessment that they said showed among other things: confusion about and inconsistent implementation of processes, students aren't getting programs that are individually suited to their needs, a lack of equitable access across the district, and the need for more in-depth training for special ed teachers (more than say one day of training).

Perhaps most startling was the report that fewer than 10 percent of special ed students in HISD are passing. Accompanying that was the observation that by far the majority of teacher training more focused on how to fill out the correct special education forms rather than any instructional guidance. This was backed up parent Shana Halvorsen who spoke to the board about her fourth grade daughter who entered HISD schools at the kindergarten level and remains there, having made no progress in the ensuing years in HISD.

The ratio of special ed students to school psychologists in HISD is 5,000 to 1 compared to the Industry standard of 500-700 to 1, according to Allison Gandhi, director in the Special Education Practice Area for AIR.

Seventy six percent of the people in the focus group composed of district level leaders said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that school principals care about the special ed kids on their campus, which AIR identified  as "Tensions and division persists between general ed and special ed."

Trustee Sergio Lira questioned saying that in his experience as an administrator "On the campuses I've worked on there was always a partnership and principals were very, very concerned about all students." But trustee Elizabeth Santos who worked as a teacher, said  she wasn't surprised at all, saying that special ed students aren't regarded as being part of the general education programs.

Santos said that special ed was always an afterthought. She said she understood AIR's recommendation that HISD start small with its improvement program, but said there are schools across the district that need to improve their special ed services right now. "It was really interesting to find that parents were moving cross town to other schools because they received better special education services somewhere else."

Communication of policies is poor and the website used by the district outlining its policies consists of 570 distinct files and pages, that are difficult to negotiate, change frequently and sometimes are in conflict with other special ed policy, Gandhi said.

Special ed teachers are not consulted before buildings are built or renovated, she said they found. The district lacks a systemic process of involving families of special education students.

The independent audit which took ten months to complete was a discouraging report especially when most of what it calls for to effect change would cost money, a tough call for a district that later in the night would vote to prepare for a reduction in force in the next school year that will cut back staffing for everyone from teachers to janitors in schools.  On top of being declared a property-rich district which means HISD has to send money back to the state, the damage from Hurricane Harvey will probably reduce property values and diminish the property taxes it can expect from owners in the district.

Exempted from the RIF are teachers of secondary math, science, and English, bilingual education, and some special education critical shortage areas. Those employees may be reassigned within the district.

The trustees did amend their original motion on the so-called RIF with a motion from Santos calling for another workshop before March 31 to discuss their plan to decrease teachers at some schools and increase them at others in a bid for "equity." One workshop is already scheduled for 11 a.m.on March 22. Santos' motion said the other one should not begin before 6 p.m. to allow people to attend after work.

And this morning, the HISD press office sent out this statement:

"Principals will be receiving their budget information in the near future. At that time, campus administrators will then have the required information to determine their staffing needs for the 2018-2019 school year. The Reduction in Force board items that were approved at last evenings board meeting were procedural to allow future reductions in force to occur if necessary."
Followed by this further clarification at 9:58 a.m.:

Principals will be receiving their budget information in the near future. At that time, campus administrators will then have the required information to determine their staffing needs for the 2018-2019 school year. The Reduction in Force board items that were approved at last evenings board meeting were procedural to allow future reductions in force to occur if necessary. Of course, campus based reduction in force decisions related to changes in programming, or staff reorganizations unrelated to the budget, are also covered by this item, and can be brought forward for review immediately.

Here's the special ed report in its entirety. See what you think.

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