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Spokane Public Schools trying to expand inclusion for special education students

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW  (JESSE TINSLEY)
The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Jim Allen For The Spokesman-Review

Spokane Public Schools is making progress toward greater inclusion of students with disabilities into general classrooms, but more work lies ahead, board members were told this week.

Among the district’s priorities in its 2022-28 strategic plan is to increase access and inclusion for students who receive Special Education and English Language Development services, with a goal of having 80% of those students in a general education setting 80% of the time.

Toward that goal, the district is implementing several strategies, including professional development and more co-teaching in several subjects.

“It’s a long-range plan because it takes time to do it right,” said Becky Ramsey, the district’s director for K-12 curriculum.

The issue is critical, according to national studies showing children with special education needs who are in inclusive classes are absent less often.

Moreover, they tend to develop stronger skills in reading and math, and are more likely to have jobs and pursue education after high school.

Spokane is making “dramatic progress” toward that goal at the secondary level, said Kristina Baker, director of special education.

In the 2017-18 school year, 39% of middle school special education students were spending at least 80% of their class time in the least restrictive environment based on their abilities. This year, that number is 63.7%.

Gains were also strong at the high school level, where 80% inclusion rose from 35% of special education students to 52%.

Elementary school inclusion rates were already high at 77.7%, but rose enough to reach 80.1%.

District-wide at all grade levels, 67.7% of all students are at the 80% threshold.

To improve those numbers without compromising teaching quality for other students, the district plans to better educate its teachers.

According to a national study by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, more than 45% of high school teachers and between 30 and 35% of middle and elementary school teachers said they had never collaborated on lesson planning.

That might have been because only about a third of general classroom teachers said they see themselves as primarily responsible for accommodating their special education students’ needs, despite the fact that these students are typically educated alongside their peers who aren’t receiving services.

The district plans to address that by investing in the Universal Design for Learning program. According to district documents shared Monday, all staff will be instructed in UDL.

Introduced by educational researchers in the early 2000s, the Universal Design for Learning provides a framework for individualized support and inclusion.

At the same time, it looks at learning barriers, such as the design of the goals, assessments, methods and materials.

“The focus on UDL is probably our biggest program development, giving kids access to general education, based on each student’s individual needs and how they learn best,” Ramsey said.

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