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Special education reform: Teachers, parents speak out


Some teachers and parents say things are getting worse instead of better at PPS

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Dominic Le Fave, a teacher at Wilson High School to students with significant disabilities, says teachers are getting fed up with a lack of support staff, particularly as the district attempts to integrate special education students in typical classrooms. Portland Public Schools special education teacher Dominic Le Fave has a very different story to tell than PPS Special Education Director Mary Pearson.

Pearson says that thanks to the economic recovery, special education staffing levels are better than they have ever been. After years of deep cuts, the special ed department is finally able to start regaining what they’ve lost.

But even with increased funds, many say that it seems harder for Portland Public Schools than neighboring districts to offer universal access to a high standard of special education.

Adding to this is the district’s controversial plan called Reach 2020 that aims to integrate special education students into standard classrooms before the year 2020.

Pearson says that in the last two school years, the district has added 46.6 full-time equivalent positions in the special ed department, from new speech-language pathologists to new learning specialists. This has lowered the staffing ratio from one staffer per 30 students to one per 25 students, she says.

“We’re slowly trying to add staffing back and everybody is kind of in the same boat, so it’s not like we have a budget for inclusion,” Pearson says. “What we’re trying to do is provide appropriate staffing across the district so that everybody is feeling a little bit of relief.”

In fact, Pearson says, “We have more paraeducators out in buildings than we have ever had in the history of PPS.”

NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series. Read “Special education reform - opening closed doors” from Thursday, Feb. 11 for part one.

Le Fave says his experience has been the opposite. A longtime Life Skills teacher at Wilson High School, Le Fave says that even with some of the most disabled children in the district, his caseloads and paraeducator support have gotten dramatically worse this year.

“Everyone’s caseloads are astronomical,” he says. Le Fave says his caseload was capped at nine students when he was first hired a decade ago. This year he has 18. He also says he has fewer support staff.

“Now, I support inclusion and I work toward that in my program, but I have to say that if you approach inclusion with integrity, that actually takes more staff than if you have self-contained programs,” Le Fave says.

He says he sees the mounting stress on students, teachers and parents.

“I got into this because I wanted to help kids,” Le Fave says. “I know what the kids’ needs are and I know that I can’t meet them. So it just puts me in a really demoralized position.”

Funding capped at 11 percent

PPS is the largest school district in Oregon, the most urbanized district and the one closest to specialized medical services for kids with disabilities. Perhaps for all of these reasons and more, it has a slightly higher-than-average percentage of special education students, at 14 percent of its student body. Like most of the state’s districts, however, it doesn’t get extra funding for all of those students.

Jenni Knaus, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Education, explains that the formula for how the state’s districts get special education money has a cap on it. TRIBUNE GRAPHIC - Portland Public Schools has an above-average percentage of special education students in the metro area.

The billions of dollars in the State School Fund money is distributed by the “weight” of a student’s needs. A typical student is 1.0 weight. A special education student is double that — but only up to 11 percent of the student body.

For example, if a district has 1,000 students, the first 110 special education students would earn the district additional funding, but the 111th student and all the ones after that get no additional funding, Knaus says.

According to data from the Oregon Department of Education, only 23 districts out of the 176 with special education students have fewer than 11 percent.

None of this money is earmarked specifically for special education, though.

“The State School Fund statutes do not require districts to spend the money in a specific manner,” Knaus says. “The State School Fund is a distribution formula and not a spending formula.”

There are other resources that are earmarked for special education, but they are a smaller slice of the pie.

Pearson says the federal government provides just $9.5 million of her $74 million budget. That’s just shy of 13 percent.

When the federal law requiring special education services in public schools was passed in 1975, Congress promised to fund 40 percent of the services.

It never has.

Reach 2020 timeline has slowed

Pearson says she knows that Wilson High School and Le Fave’s class are under-resourced. She says there are plans for improvement next year, in part because a “bubble” of kids are graduating out of the system.

“Admittedly, it’s higher (caseloads) than we want them to be,” Pearson says. “You’re in the uncomfortable place where there’s not enough students to make another classroom.”

As for Reach 2020, an ambitious plan to end widespread educational segregation of students with disabilities by the year 2020, Pearson says the timeline has slowed after the pilot programs revealed trouble spots.

“In order to do any kind of a district-wide roll out, there’s the notion of you need to go slow to go fast,” Pearson says. “You really need to figure out what works and what people need.”

When it was announced in January 2015, Reach 2020’s crown jewel of a program was supposed to be co-teaching: where a general education teacher and a special education teacher work side-by-side in a classroom. It has so far been a rare and isolated effort that is hard to put into practice. There are co-teachers at two neighborhood schools and others have done it unofficially, but Pearson says it’s not really something that can come as a mandate.

If two teachers are going to work in the same classroom, Pearson says, “That has to be a functional relationship. It can’t be forced.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - Andrea Anderson says she is overwhelmed and confused by the treatment of her sons behavioral disability at Portland Public Schools. She worries the district is not following his Individualized Education Program as his behavior is worsening.

Parent at the end of her rope

Andrea Anderson’s little 7-year-old boy is very sweet... until he is not.

“He would rage. He would tear the office apart. He would tear the room apart,” says Anderson, who lives in Northeast Portland with her husband and two kids. The source of Elliot’s extreme behavior — which began in kindergarten — is a mystery to Anderson, who is an elementary teacher herself in a different district.

But as difficult as it has been to come to grips with Elliot’s outbursts, Anderson says interacting with the Portland Public Schools special education system has been worse.

Anderson says she has to continually ask the district to honor her son’s Individual Education Program. She questions whether the district has been following his IEP, which calls for twice-daily movement breaks.

She says she is overwhelmed and ready to pull Elliot out of his neighborhood school.

“We need their help,” Anderson says through tears. “We need them to help us. We’re fighting with each other. And we need them to help us. We need to know. What can we do? We try everything.”

Anderson says she is frustrated with a lack of clear communication and the absence of a team attitude.

“Obviously this is broken,” she says. “The relationship with the school is broken, the relationship with the teacher is broken. And that’s where we’re at.”

Colliding programs could be a framework

PPS board member Julie Esparza Brown is sympathetic to the barrage of changes teachers have had thrown at them to accommodate a wider range of children in recent years.

“It’s not an easy job. It’s getting broader than ever,” Brown says. “I think it is a hard time for teachers because there are so many changes.”

A professor at Portland State University, Brown is a national expert on special education, English-learner needs and where those intersect.

Brown says that in an ideal situation, the new policies trying to promote a new culture of equity for all children regardless of differences would work together.

“Really, they can all connect if we just look at it as a big framework,” Brown says. “I’m kind of a big-picture kind of person. How can we connect things better and more efficiently?”

She says the educational system needs to have multi-tiered supports for behavioral and academic needs. But Brown worries that schools have gotten so focused on academics and testing, that they have forgotten a key ingredient to forming young minds: fun.

“They learn through play,” Brown says, stressing the importance of modeling behavior rather than punishing kids for it. “They also learn behavior through play.”

Brown says her major focus on the school board is to try to increase personnel in schools but also to make sure they are trained.

“Sometimes the neediest kids get placed with the least-well-trained people,” she says. “We have to make sure that the (people) out there are really well-trained.”

Brown says investing in professional development, curriculum and paraeducators will pay dividends in higher graduation rates and kids better able to build the society of tomorrow.

“We’ve got to make these changes,” Brown says. “It’s pretty scary to think of what happens if we don’t.”

Teachers feel caught in the middle

Roseway Heights (K-8) School teacher Kurt Krohn says teachers are already feeling overwhelmed with the changes, but mostly with the lack of accompanying support.

“We just had a horrendous year in terms of special ed in our building,” Krohn says. “It’s kind of crazy right now. There’s too many issues.”

He claims that several people have quit over the issues and morale is at an all-time low.

“I’ve been assaulted this year. I’ve been cussed out more than I can tell you,” says the longtime teacher and coach. “We’ve had no training to do restraints or holds or whatever. We’re just supposed to say ‘OK.’”

Krohn echoes Le Fave’s experience that there is actually less support this year than before.

“For inclusion, I don’t know why we have to throw a kid into it: ‘OK. You’re included. Go.’ ” he says.

Another teacher, a longtime special education teacher at a PPS high school who wished to remain anonymous, says things are the same at his building.

“I think we’re feeling more and more the push between parents wanting more things for their children and the district is refusing to give them what they want,” the teacher says. “We as teachers feel like we’re being stuck in the middle. We feel like we’re caught in between the law and what the district says it can provide and what the parents (want).”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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