In the third grade, Edee Morse was held back.
“They didn’t tell me why,” said Morse, 13. “I had no clue what to improve on.”
Morse is now an eighth-grade student at Pride Prep, one of Spokane’s two charter schools. She speaks confidently, her intelligence obvious and infusing every word.
It wasn’t always the case, she said. When she started her second year of third grade, she was taken out of her classroom and put in a special class focused on reading. She struggled with compound words. She may have been dyslexic. She was labeled a special education student.
Her teachers thought she was “playing dumb” Morse said. Although the extra reading time helped, she started to fall behind in other subjects. Math, for instance.
That all changed when Morse started at Pride Prep in sixth grade. Since then she’s flourished.
And she’s not alone.
During the 2016-17 fall semester, 20 percent of the 240 students enrolled at Pride Prep qualified for special education services. During the spring semester, that number dropped, slightly, to 18 percent. This semester, roughly 15 percent of the school’s population qualifies for special education, said Cassie Kaleohano-Hauanio, the school’s special education director.
The state’s average hovers around 14 percent, while roughly 16 percent of Spokane Public School students qualified for special education services.
On average, Pride Prep special education students performed better on state standardized tests than their peers, Kaleohano-Hauanio said.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the community itself,” Kaleohano-Hauanio said of the higher test scores. “I think, in a few different ways, kids are happy because they are able to experience different things that they probably never would have been able to in the programs that they came from.”
The school, which is located at 811 E. Sprague, has smaller class sizes and emphasizes student engagement and initiative. Those qualities benefit some special education students, she said.
“I think just having another option for families is just super important,” she said.
The small class sizes allow the teachers to work closely with the students and their families. That is “really empowering” for special education students and families, Kaleohano-Hauanio said. Instead of just focusing on learning goals and objectives, she said Pride Prep teachers and staff work to recognize that “you are a person and you learn a different way.”
And, the tight integration of special education students and general education students help general education students “develop a sense of empathy” for special education students, Kaleohano-Hauanio said.
Morse agrees. At Pride Prep she’s received patient, methodical instruction.
“They’re just a lot more open and hands-on,” she said. “It makes me feel a lot better. And how they teach is a lot simpler.”
But, Kaleohano-Hauanio emphasizes that Pride Prep’s setting and style “isn’t for every student.” The high-energy, sometimes chaotic, environment can be overwhelming for some.
Still, for students like Morse, the school has tangible benefits.
For example, 27 percent of eighth-grade special education students at Pride Prep earned proficient scores in state standardized tests in English/Language Arts in 2017. That’s compared to 13 percent statewide.
In math, 45 percent of Pride Prep special education students scored proficient, compared to 9 percent statewide. In science, 55 percent of Pride Prep special education students received a proficient grade, compared to 23 percent statewide.
“I think our model just provides for a different environment,” Kaleohano-Hauanio. “One where all students can feel included.”
In fact, she said so far this year two Pride Prep students “exited” special education. Every three years, according to federal special education law, students must be re-evaluated. If they no longer need the services they are “exited.” Last year, Pride Prep exited three students.
Pride Prep’s size does give it a distinct advantage over larger districts, like Spokane Public Schools, Kaleohano-Hauanio said. In May 2017, Spokane Public Schools had 5,113 enrolled special education students. In a recent study of Spokane Public Schools special education services, commissioned by the district, communication between the district and special education students and families was listed as a concern.
For Pride Prep, communicating directly with each family is much easier than in a large district like Spokane Public Schools. Still, Kaleohano-Hauanio said the No. 1 benefit Pride Prep provides for students is the school’s focus on “building relationships.”
“I think a lot of it is just open communication and being able to talk about kids and how they’re progressing,” she said.