Tacoma Public Schools wants to launch a major overhaul of its special education system in hopes that students with special needs can be better integrated into the mainstream.
District officials say the shift in thinking means services would come to most students in their neighborhood schools rather than requiring kids to travel to other campuses to obtain services.
Today, 43 percent of Tacomas more than 3,000 special-education students do not attend their designated neighborhood school; they either take a bus or are driven by parents to schools with special programs.
The planned changes also would put more classrooms into whats called the inclusion model, which places special-needs students in general classes with added support. The model is already in use in some Tacoma schools, such as Stanley Elementary, Lincoln High School and the Tacoma School of the Arts.
This cant be done without a lot of professional learning going on, said Ron Felton, associate director of the Massachusetts-based Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative, which completed an evaluation of Tacomas special education services in February.
Its going to be scary for some folks, Felton said. But its about building capacity in all schools. In the end, you will help not just the kids with the label, but all kids.
While there are pockets of excellence within the Tacoma District, he said the district needs a plan to ensure change.
This week and next week, the district will host meetings for staff members and for parents to learn more about 18 recommendations from Feltons group and about whats in store for students with special needs.
Jennifer Traufler, who oversees the districts special-education services, said the changes will take time and will be phased in gradually. The School Board has not yet discussed what it all would cost.
But Traufler said inclusion is considered a best practice in education and that some school districts have eliminated self-contained classrooms altogether.
Research shows it will improve (education) for the special-education kids, she said. At the same time, she added, research indicates that inclusive classrooms work for general-education students, too.
Stadium High School sophomore Luke Byram, who gets special help in math, sees pros and cons in the proposed changes.
When theres extra support, its phenomenal, its great, he said.
But he said things can fall apart if a teacher doesnt use the extra support correctly. If a student has a paraeducator helping, he said, theres a danger that a teacher might put too much on the shoulders of that helper.
Luke also said special-needs students may not always be able to keep pace in a traditional classroom.
Training everybody that sounds pretty great, he said. Im glad that theyre looking at special education
Lukes mom, Karen Byram, said the review of special education is long overdue in Tacoma. She said her son has been well-served by the districts physical therapy and academic counseling services.
But sometimes its hard to get the services to the kids because they are short-staffed, she said. I dont know how theyre going to address that. They will need to figure out how to meet the individual needs of kids if they are going to mainstream.
Traufler said the district is aware that parents of severely disabled students might not want their children placed in mainstream classes.
Tacoma is well-regarded statewide for some of its specialized programs, such as those for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Traufler foresees leaving those kinds of programs intact for parents who want them.
But she said about 80 percent of Tacomas students have learning disabilities that could allow them to succeed in general-education classes, as long as they have support.
She said one of her goals is to stop moving special-education students from school to school. One Tacoma mom said her adopted sixth-grader with special needs has bounced between five schools. She said this has made it difficult for him to bond with students or teachers.
The shift also would require more training for both special-education and general-education teachers so they can work together sometimes in the same classrooms, where students possess a wide range of abilities.
We need to break down those silos, Felton said.
Transforming special education would require teachers to redouble their efforts to help all students.
Adrienne Dale, president of the Tacoma Education Association, said the district has invited the union and its members to learn more about the consultants report.
TEA is being cautiously optimistic about the final outcomes of this work group, she said.
Kim Golding is a former School Board member whose disabled son graduated from Lincoln High School and then stayed in a transition program for disabled students through age 21.
With integration, educators will be challenged to know and understand all of the disabilities, and this will be no easy task, she said. She believes paraeducators are undervalued, and she disagrees with the reports assessment that the district has too many of them.
Teachers will need help, Golding said.
She also said the reports call for more parent involvement might be unrealistic.
Most parents of special needs kids are overwhelmed, perhaps more so than parents of regular ed kids, Golding said.
Tacoma School Superintendent Carla Santorno said implementing the recommendations will require a change in culture. She said if staff members view special-needs students as belonging to the special-education department, then they tend to call on that department to fix problems.
Instead, she said, every principal needs to own all their students.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
WHAT: Tacoma Public Schools meetings on proposed changes in special education.
WHEN: 6-7 p.m. Wednesday; 6-7 p.m. March 11 or noon-1 p.m. March 12.
WHERE: Central Administration Building, 601 S. Eighth St., Tacoma; fourth-floor board room.
MORE INFO: Meetings will present findings from a consultants report, describe actions already taken, discuss next steps and answer questions from parents and others.
Read the full report online at http://bit.ly/YKxwFW