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Report Faults Seattle Schools For 'Lack Of Urgency' In Serving Most Vulnerable Students

Lynne Sladky
AP Photo
Students listen to their teacher in a special education classroom in Florida.

Seattle Public Schools' efforts to educate students with disabilities of all sorts are "in need of urgent, substantial and significant improvement," according to a scathing report released Tuesday, faulting district staff from the administrative offices all the way down to individual schools.

The report itself was commissioned by the district office's special education team as part of an effort to correct, as the authors call it, "an obvious and chronic lack... of urgency" around special education — and to bring Seattle Public Schools back in the good graces of both state officials and of federal law.

'A Lack Of Vision At The District Level'

"Special education is on the radar now. It's on the radar big-time," said executive director of special education Zakiyyah McWilliams, who believes Seattle Public Schools officials have already taken huge strides in ensuring state officials don't take more punitive steps, like assuming control of the $11 million in special education funding the district receives from the feds.

State education officials have been on Seattle Public Schools' case for months, at first dinging the district for failing to properly track special education students and perform their psychological evaluations on time. The feds have since upped their expectations, calling into question more fundamental shortcomings in the district's approach to special education.

The report by a national education consultancy lays those bare: a "lack of vision... at the district level," high turnover among central office special education staff, poor data management, poor communication and poor teacher training.

Parents: Special Ed Students Excluded 

At the heart of these issues is a fundamental culture problem, according to parents of special education students. Many of these students received a different education than the general student population, parents say, rather than receiving the same education as everyone else supplemented with special services addressing their disability.

"They were viewed as kids who go into a special room and you never see them again," said Mary Griffin, a past president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA whose eighth-grade son has autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Griffin says she heard complaints from parents about schools misplacing their special education students in the wrong educational settings or teachers reprimanding students too harshly for problems related to their condition.

Signs Of Progress? 'We Want To Comply'

Like many of the report's tough conclusions, McWilliams accepts the criticism that the district didn't have strong strategies about how to integrate special education students into general education classrooms.

"Special ed has been seen as a separate program, versus an integral program within general education. That is what I first saw when I came in. That is what I continue to see," she said.

But McWilliams says there's been progress. Hers is now a cabinet-level position in the district's administration, and she says the state has eased off a threat to take over part of the district's special education budget.

"We want to comply with everything [state officials are] asking us to do," she said.

Stage Could Be Set For Drastic Improvement

After requesting an extension from state officials, Seattle Public Schools officials now have until June 30, 2015, to meet all of the goals spelled out in what's called a "comprehensive correction plan," which identifies problems the district needs to correct.

The report says the plan is the key to positive change, as it "sets the stage for initiating widespread and much-needed improvements where accomplishments can be celebrated and staff remain precisely accountable."

District officials also have to submit an official request to the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for their federal special education funding allotment.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.
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