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Strengths, weaknesses identified in Spokane special education programs

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 15, 2017

FILE – Madison Elementary School students, Corbin Fritz, left, and Chris Nathaniel, right, play a memory game during a meeting of the Madison Buddies, Feb. 25, 2015. The Madison Buddies program partners general education and special education students at lunch and in the classroom to help develop relationships. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – Madison Elementary School students, Corbin Fritz, left, and Chris Nathaniel, right, play a memory game during a meeting of the Madison Buddies, Feb. 25, 2015. The Madison Buddies program partners general education and special education students at lunch and in the classroom to help develop relationships. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A wide-ranging study of Spokane Public Schools special education programs validated long-standing parental concerns about special education in the state’s second-largest district.

In a presentation to the board of directors last week, Lauren Katzman, a member of the group that conducted the study, praised the district for some things, but emphasized that her job is to look for “pain points.”

“You’re doing fine, but you could always do better,” she said.

Katzman is the executive director of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative.

The study reinforced many parental concerns and complaints about special education in the school district.

“I fee like it validated concerns that we brought up,” said Nikki Lockwood, a parent and member of the Every Student Counts Alliance. “We needed it. We needed an outside perspective.”

Katzman said the district excelled in a number of areas, including the training of campus resources officers. And she noted that the district asked for the review, a good proactive sign, she said.

Still, the report found issues in the districts’ organizational structure, noting that staff, including special education staff, often seemed confused about who to report certain questions to. The report notes that when reviewers requested an organizational chart they were given six different versions.

“We found a lot of good work, but inefficient work, because it wasn’t organized,” she said.

Additionally, the special education department didn’t seem to have a clear unifying vision, Katzman said.

“There was a lack of collaboration between special education and the building administration,” she said.

She also noted that the special education data management system was outdated and needed to be replaced. Currently it relies partially on hand-written forms and duplicates some steps.

And, while the district has reduced its overall number of suspensions and expulsions, students with disabilities are still disproportionally disciplined.

“You want to be careful not to suspend a kid because of a disability,” she said.

There also appears to be a strained relationship between parents and district staff, Katzman said.

“I think you need to figure out a way to work with parents and kids with disabilities in a different way because there is a disconnect,” she told the board.

The report also questioned how Spokane counts students with Individual Education Plans, called IEPs. According to Spokane’s teacher contract, students qualifying for an IEP count as 1.5 students. The long-standing contractual language was intended to recognize the extra attention IEP students require.

However, there has been concern that the system keeps special education students out of general education classes. The district’s former director of special education, Laura Pieper, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in 2016 claiming the practice violates the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Department of Education has not issued a ruling on that complaint.

Katzman also raised concerns about the provision in her report to the board.

“There is a concern about that, because what we heard from quite a few people was that enrollment was a reason kids could not get included in general education classes,” she said.

Katzman also noted that Eagle Peak, despite enrolling a majority of the district’s students with disabilities, is essentially disconnected from the special education department and special education services.

She noted students with 504 plans and IEPs are placed in the same classrooms at Eagle Peak..

Students who have 504 plans are entitled to certain limited services to accommodate their learning. IEPs, on the other hand, provide students who have specific disabilities individualized education plans.

Having students with IEPs and 504 plans both attend Eagle Peak led Katzman to wonder if the district was providing the appropriate services.

“Kids with behavioral problems and the kids with mental health issues getting the same service” is a problem, she said.

Lisa Pacheco, the director of special education in Spokane Public Schools, welcomed the feedback and said many of the study’s recommendations will be implemented.

“We would agree that our system is not perfect,” she said. “We certainly have work to do.”

However, in certain areas she disagreed with the study findings. She said Eagle Peak, for example, is not disconnected from special education services.

Students at Eagle Peak have access to special education services like all schools in Spokane Public School, said Franklin Day, the associate director of special education. Day said he visits Eagle Peak several times a week.

And while students with 504 plans and IEPs are all enrolled at the school, they are in different, distinct programs, Day said.

As for the 1.5 weighing issue, Pachecho said she’s heard that concern before, but believes it has been fixed. Under the terms of the current teacher contract if a class has one spot left, teachers must accept special education students even though the 1.5 weighing would technically overload their class.

“Our interest is making sure it doesn’t impact access,” she said of the provision.

Still, Pachecho emphasized that the district and the special education department will look at and consider all the recommendations.

In particular she said, the special education department will work to improve communication between the different departments. Administrators are planning a district-wide look at special education services and communication, she said. Additionally, the special education department will clarify its organizational chart and write a vision statement.

“I think it really reaffirmed the areas we felt needed attention,” Pachecho said.

The district paid $85,000 for the study. Roughly 110 school staff and family members were interviewed for the report and reviewers visited 13 schools, about 40 classrooms and surveyed staff and parents.

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