HISD Thinks Too Many African American Kids May Be in Special Ed

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier has reason to believe his district has tagged too many African American students with mental retardation and emotional disturbance labels, and that it may be underserving limited English proficiency Hispanic kids at the elementary level.

Oh, and that HISD isn't doing such a hot job identifying all the kids who need help with their dyslexia.

Grier and his administration's positions are based upon statistical comparisons of HISD to other school districts with similar demographics in an audit done by a Boston firm, he said at a media roundtable Wednesday. In an attempt to learn whether what they suspect is true, there will be more testing and analysis of students who attend regular classes, but have been identified as needing special ed, he said.

Also, there will be more effort on HISD's part to make sure the special ed assessment testing the district does is not culturally biased.

"I know since my first day on the job, one of the big concerns that have been stressed to me by teachers, educators and school board members was the condition -- and I'll use that word loosely -- the condition of our special education department and that word 'condition' there, the connotation was not good," Grier said.

About 8.1 percent or 16,386 students in Houston have been judged in need of special ed services, which include a wide range of physical conditions (deafness, blindness) as well as intelligence.

Hair Balls wanted to know if there were any schools doing an especially poor job of assessing their special education students. Despite more than one run at the question, in the end she had to settle for Grier saying something to the effect that some schools could be doing a better job in a variety of areas including record keeping and mainstreaming. But he declined to be specific.

And he took issue with Hair Balls' depiction of this as possible "dumping" of students into special ed classes, saying that was not the case, that what they are looking at is "are we appropriately identifying students, are we adequately serving those students?"

In a just-released report, Thomas Hehir and Associates of Boston studied the HISD special ed program in fall 2010. According to HISD, that study found "African American students in HISD are dramatically over-represented in the categories of mental retardation and emotional disturbance."

Too few Hispanic students are being helped at the elementary level and too many at the middle and high school levels. Grier said this may have something to do with these students not getting a good English base early on, with the result that when they get to the higher grades, schools are unable to work with them and move them to special ed (rather than recognizing the problems may be more language-based).

Most special ed students attend their home schools.

Grier said better dyslexia determination is very important because it's much easier to help younger than older students. "The research around dyslexia is that if you identify and have early intervention in kindergarten, first, second and third grade, your chances of helping remediate that disorder are much higher than if you wait till a student gets to middle school or high school to start your interventions. We had not done as good a job in that area as we need to do."

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing