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Portland Teachers Balking at Special Education Redesign

Thursday, June 11, 2015


Partly to address the disproportion of students of color to white students needing special education services, Portland Public Schools could be moving away from a segregated model for special education services that excludes students from regular teaching—a trend that has some national impetus. 

“It’s more about a philosophical shift in the way that we view, and our expectations of, students who experience a disability,” said Mary Pearson, special education director. “The idea is we want to move more toward inclusive practices so that the majority of students are receiving their education in a regular education setting.” 

But classroom teachers are concerned about receiving enough support to help students with special needs, especially behavioral issues, since the change could eventually move many students previously in behavioral classrooms into regular classrooms. 

Student and staff safety are a huge concern, said Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland Teacher’s Association. “Everyone is really having a hard time with (the special ed redesign).” 

Sullivan is concerned that about the district getting rid of the behavior classrooms as a part of its Reach 2020 plan. Without middle ground spaces like the behavior classrooms, Sullivan said the options are either the regular classroom or an even more restrictive environment. 

But district officials say change is needed because the current special education model is not working. “The reason for this is that lots of research across the country has really pointed to that the idea of removing students with disability and remediating is not the way to get students to meet their highest academic potential,” said Pearson. 

The majority of students with disabilities do not have a cognitive impairment, said Pearson. “They really have the ability to access general education curriculum, (though) they might need it in a different manner.”

Scope of Special Education Needs is Significant

Approximately 6,900 students of the district’s total 48,500 are receiving special education services, but not enough of them are succeeding academically. Of third graders in special education programs, only 53 percent met state benchmarks, while the state would like to see at least 69 percent hit achievement targets. Even fewer graduate from high school—31 percent of students with disabilities receive a diploma within four years. The state aims to see 67 percent of students with disabilities graduating.

But one big reason for the district’s attention to special ed is the growing concern over the disproportionate number of black students with disabilities. Currently, 25 percent of behavior classroom students are black, while the total black population in the district is only 10.7 percent. Black students with disabilities are also five times more likely to be expelled for more than 10 days during a school year.  

The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) has been concerned about the disproportionate number of minority students in special education—an issue in which Portland is not alone. While states are required to set and monitor their own guidelines of what is “disproportional,” the USDE is planning to issue additional guidance on how federal funding can be used to address the issue some time this year. 

In the meantime, PPS has been sanctioned for two years by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) for disparity in exclusionary discipline of special education students of color during the 2012-2013 school year, which means that they must set aside 15 percent of federal special education funding to address intervention services. 

Pearson said that the district has cut its expulsion of African American students with disabilities by half since the sanction but that according to state monitoring, it may not be enough since number of expulsions also decreased for white students during the same period. “We are making progress in that area. We are not there yet and we realize that this is still a problem,” said Pearson.

As a result, the district is taking two strategies, including applying funding to intervening before students are removed from general education as well as restorative justice, which aims to reduce expulsions and find other ways to address behavioral issues.

“We were already moving in that direction,” said Pearson. “For us it wasn’t like money was taken away from us but… it’s actually a good thing.”

In Sullivan’s view, however, the move toward fewer disciplinary options is creating a less safe environment. One of Superintendent Carole Smith’s top priorities this year is to cut our exclusionary discipline in half and close the gap between students of color and white students by half.

But the policy, which attempts to avoid expulsion, coupled with a new state law passed last year that restricts teachers from restraining students unless there is an immanent threat, gives teachers little disciplinary options in high-risk situations.  

Difficult Challenges

This year was a hard year for some teachers, however, as the district took first steps by holding off on making any placements of students in grades K-2 into behavior classrooms. 

As a result some kindergarten teachers have faced difficult behavioral issues with little support, said Sullivan. One student regularly bites and scratches a teacher, she said. “It got to the point where there was some sort of shuffle and kid pushes her down and she got a concussion.” 

“We had another one where kiddo (a kindergartener) stripped down to nothing and got on ledge,” said Sullivan. 

When situations like this are happening, teachers aren’t feeling supported by the policies or programs. “The kids that are actually doing some of these things, they’re not getting the help they need either,” she said.

But Pearson acknowledged that this year was “a stretch,” since the funding was held up in the K-2 behavior classrooms this year instead of providing the support those students needed inside of the regular classroom. Next year will be the first year that the district will reallocate its special education budget to make way for the transition. 

Pearson said the decision to end placement of K-2 students in behavior rooms was a “moral imperative.” “We were making a decision about a kindergartener that could affect whether or not they will graduate from high school,” she said. “That time period in a child’s life is really important. It’s really important that they don’t miss rigorous instruction and that we learn how to support our young students.”

Only about 6 percent of students who do enter a behavior classroom in K-2 ever go back to the regular classroom, she said. “It’s very likely they are not going to be academically equipped to engage in the rigor of high school.”

Other shifts in special education services outlined in the Reach 2020 are currently in flux. Over the last few months, administrators have been reaching out to special ed advisory groups, parents and principals, and there have already been two community forums. 

Pearson said that major program decisions have yet to be made. “Staff really need to build their skills and understanding before we can move to big program shifts,” she said. 

Next year, the district will also launch pilot schools that will be demonstration sites for co-teaching and inclusive practices. One example of this kind of inclusive model will be co-teaching between the regular classroom teacher and learning specialists and speech language pathologists. Another part of it is “increasing the capacity of teachers and staff to reach a wider range of learner,” said Pearson. “This is not solely a special education initiative. This is changing the way we are educating all students.” 

Likely this will include more consultation between teachers and school psychologists, who can advise on managing behavior and working with students with disabilities, cultural or linguistic barriers and students who socioeconomic background is affecting their learning.

Pearson said that the district should have enough special education funding to allow for this transition, though part of the challenge will be in appropriately reallocating funding. 


Related Slideshow: 9 Challenges Facing Portland Public Schools

Aiming to lower expulsion rates, especially for students of color, and raising high school graduation rates are among Portland Public Schools’ top priorities. See what other challenges the schools are facing here. 

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Raising Graduation Rates 

In 2012-2013, about 75 percent of students graduated with their cohort, while another 7 percent of their cohort completed some form of high school requirements during a fifth year, finishing in 2013-2014.

Sascha Perrins, senior director of PK-12 Programs, said Portland Public School District has raised rates by doing more career technical education alongside regular curriculum, giving students deeper offerings all the way back to middle school, as well as by identifying students sooner who have fallen behind. 

Graduation rates got a little boost from another data change in 2013-2014 that could be a little deceiving. In 2013-2014, the state began counting students who received a modified diploma in the four-year cohort rate, reasoning that a modified diploma is enough to qualify for college financial aid. 

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Reducing Expulsions 

The district also has a strategy to address an issue that goes hand in hand with graduation rates: exclusionary discipline of students. “We’re seeing a really high link with kids who are excluded (via expulsion) and kids who don’t graduate on time,” said Perrins. “I’m not saying if you miss… suddenly you can’t graduate, but it’s more symptomatic of your experience in school.”

Additionally, students of color are far more likely to experience expulsion than white students—a national trend that doesn’t miss Portland. In 2013-2014, 10.5 percent of African American students were expelled at least once, while 7.4 percent of Native Americans, 4.4 percent of Pacific Islanders, 3.9 percent of Hispanics, 3.8 of percent mixed race, 2.3 percent of whites and 1 percent of Asians were expelled. 

In the last few years, the number of students being expelled has decreasd, but the rate of expulsion for African American students has not changed much. In 2013-2014, they were about 4.6 times as likely to be expelled than a white student.

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Improving Leadership

Portland Association of Teachers President Gwen Sullivan said that the district has huge leadership issues starting with principals but also at the central office. 

“People are just being mean. In some cases it feels like they are being encouraged to be,” said Sullivan. “I don’t know when (the district) will actually fire a principal. They tend to go on leave and disappear.”

Recently, the district has had a number of principals abruptly go on leave—one after being accused and arrested for domestic abuse and the other after teachers complained about the hostile environment, reported Willamette Week. 

Sullivan said that the central office must have good leadership, too, in order to address these issues. 

“We know that in a school where you have a supportive principal, the teacher feels supported, the parents feel supported, the kids feel supportive and the environment is good to teach in,” Sullivan said.

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Improving Parent and Community Engagement 

“(Parent involvement) is one of the things that everyone talks about and everyone tries to figure out how to approach,” said Otto Schell, long time parent advocate and PTA volunteer. “Some communities have done really well at engaging parents at the school level and others not so much.” 

“The PTA model works very effectively in some schools and in other schools we don’t reach all the parents,” said Schell, who is currently a Grant PTA member and the legislative director for the Oregon PTA.

Schell gave the example of watching the Caeser Chavez community come out and presented during the budget meeting at Roosevelt High School, which included a Spanish translation services. “It’s a great example of how you can do it if both the school staff and parent community coalesce and work together,” he said.

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Redrawing Boundaries

Due to anticipated growing enrollment, PPS began a boundary review process this year that would address balancing the district population in the available space in school buildings. 

Some sticky areas include achieving diversity of racial and ethnic groups and addressing space needs in some schools. 

Additionally, the district has a mix of K-5 and K-8 schools, about which parents have had mixed opinions. Some feel that middle school students get stronger offerings in a 6-8 school as classes like band or choir are difficult to offer middle school students in a K-5 school lacking a larger population.  

“Middle schools should have shop, art, band… a variety of different things,” said Sullivan. 

A district-wide committee is rethinking boundary changes for the fall 2016 school year.  

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Completing Building Upgrades and Rebuilds Using 2012 Bond Money 

Hand-in-hand with rebalancing school populations, the district is planning and currently undergoing building changes for Portland’s growing student body. While some plans are already underway, the district will still consider whether building spaces already in the works will be enough to house enrollment projections 15 years from now.

“We’d hate to overbuild or underbuild,” said Miles. 

The district has released its list of 27 summer projects in elementary schools, which includes seismic upgrades as well as science classrooms and ADA (American with Disabilities Act) work. It is also beginning work at Franklin High School with a groundbreaking at noon on Saturday, May 16, and at Roosevelt High School. Work at Faubion PK-8, which will create a shared space with Concordia University, begins in the fall. Planning for modernization at Grant High School is currently underway with construction planned for 2017. 

There are a few more years of the bond after that during which the district could consider how to adapt other smaller buildings. 

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Ensuring Third Graders Can Read to Learn 

Before third grade, teaching is more directed at helping teach students how to read, but in third grade, the curriculum shifts to reading in order to learn more. “You have to read to access more information,” said Perrins. “We want every child to access all that learning to come up after third grade.” 

Reading to learn by third grade is a priority of the Oregon Department of Education, which administers state testing in third grade. But that will only tell you what a student has learned in the past, said Perrins, which is why the district administers smaller “formative assessments” to understand what struggling students are learning. These could be done every two to three weeks. 

To support reading in elementary schools, the district hires instructional specialists especially at schools with higher poverty, divides students into smaller groups, provide mentorship for younger teachers and professional development options to strengthen teaching.

Sullivan added that in the case of reading the district is doing a good job by adding 25 more librarians next year. 

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Improving funding

The district isn’t the only player to consider in the game of funding schools. But certainly many challenges would be easier to face with more funding. 

This year, the Oregon Legislature increased funding from the last biennium to $7.255 billion spread across the state. However, most local school districts had supported a $7.5 billion budget for K-12. The reduced number isn’t really anything new for public schools, which have for years been asking for more than the legislature gives it.

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Providing More Wrap Around Services 

Sullivan said teachers could benefit from better connections with other services available to their students from impoverished families. They need things like counselors, mental health providers and food assistance—some of which can come from other sources like the county.

But, sometimes the extra support could come from special education services, which requires the district to be supportive of teachers making referrals.


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