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Originally published November 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 9, 2007 at 9:42 AM

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Seattle schools urged to overhaul special ed

A consultant's report says the district's practice of putting disabled students in self-contained programs is old school and that many of these kids should move to general-education classrooms.

Seattle Times education reporter

When Rose Yu's 12-year-old son, Asher, was in the fourth grade, the district paid his cab fare every day to and from his family's home in Madrona to a special-education program at Adams Elementary in Ballard.

Asher, who has developmental delays, is now in middle school closer to home. But his class caters mostly to students with disabilities more severe than his — a compromise Yu made feeling it was the best choice available.

Ensuring that special-education students can learn close to home is one goal identified in a consultant's report released Thursday. It said Seattle Public Schools' special-education system is outdated and should be revamped, putting more disabled students in general-education classrooms and doing away with many special "self-contained" programs.

"Seattle has an outmoded model, an outdated model in special education as a system," said David Riley, one of the authors of the report for the Massachusetts-based Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative. The district requested the report.

"Nearly all school districts across the country have been to where Seattle is, but they've moved on and have developed different ways of doing things and have found that segregating students with disabilities is not productive for anyone, especially the students," he said.

But those closest to the issue say the range of student needs is so great that serving them all in a general-education classroom seems unrealistic.

The way this report is implemented will be the first major change to the district's special-education programs in more than a decade and could represent a philosophical shift in how students with disabilities are taught.

Whether to enroll students with disabilities in general-education classrooms or keep them with peers in self-contained programs has been a long-running debate among educators and parents.

Nearly 6,500 of the 46,000 students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools have a disability. Federal law requires the district give them services and a "least restrictive environment," which means they should be included in general-education classes and curriculum as often as possible.

The auditors estimated that more than 30 percent of Seattle students with disabilities are in a more restricted environment than the law requires. The district's model is also expensive and disrupts families, they wrote, because special-ed students are often in schools outside their neighborhood because of their disabilities.

Seattle Public Schools is one of the largest providers of special-education services in King, Kitsap and Pierce counties and has been something of a regional draw.

Chief Academic Officer Carla Santorno said reviewing special ed was one of her top priorities when she arrived in 2006. She immediately noticed the same structural problems the audit noted.

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"What you hope to have in your district is an integrated program for all students."

The results of the $116,000 review will be included this spring in Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson's district strategic plan along with several other outside audits. The district has hired outside experts to look at curriculum and leadership, programs for at-risk students, bilingual services and advanced-learning programs.

Goodloe-Johnson said at a School Board meeting Tuesday that she noticed problems with special-education services, also.

"No surprises, but there's a lot of work to do," she said. "That was pretty clear to me without an audit."

Other concerns cited in the report include:

• A lack of rigor in special-education curriculum;

• A disproportionate number of students of color in special education, especially Native Americans and African Americans;

• Parents who deliberately misidentified their child's disability to get into a specialized autism program.

The report described dedicated staff and some great programs but said services are spotty.

If the district puts in place the recommendations, some kids with severe needs would still need "a special place," Riley said.

"But right now, children with even mild disabilities end up having to go to a special place. Families of children with disabilities in Seattle have fewer choices," Riley said.

He pointed to districts like Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas; Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C.; Houston; and Miami. They've all moved to the system he recommends, and national data show kids with disabilities do better the more they are with nondisabled peers and exposed to rigorous curriculum.

The report recommends Seattle add teacher training and extra aides to help students in general-education classrooms.

Yu, co-president of Seattle's Special Education PTSA, has her doubts. "They're not going to be successful just because you open the floodgates to let them into these classrooms," she said.

The district will have to provide support, something it doesn't have a good record on, Yu said. She doesn't trust district leaders to put in place a big change.

Thurgood Marshall special-ed teacher Kathie Newell teaches a class of eight autistic kids. The class attends assemblies, and individual students sometimes go to physical-education and English-language classes. .

But the reality is some of them need help going to the bathroom and require pictures to help them understand things.

"Sometimes going to general education is just the last thing on the list, because we're working so hard just to get things done," Newell said. "In theory, it all makes sense, but in practice, I just can't imagine that."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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