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Can Portland Successfully Place Special Needs Students in Neighborhood Schools?

Portland Public Schools will no longer send students with disabilities to schools outside of their neighborhoods, except those with the most profound needs, in an attempt to transform special education and embrace diversity.

In MaryMargaret Fuller’s classroom at Sitton Elementary School in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland, Ore., all eyes are on the moon.

Or more precisely, on the space race and how the third graders feel about the 1960s battle to be the first nation to plant a flag on Earth’s nearest satellite.

An 8-year-old named Jasper stretches his hand as high as he can, trying to get Fuller’s attention so he can share his considered opinion: “The president didn’t want enemies to get there first, and I disagree with that, because you shouldn’t have enemies.”

As he speaks, one of his classmates vocalizes too, her hum rising and falling, a classroom soundtrack of sorts.

Jasper, the other third graders and Fuller are undisturbed. Two-thirds of the way through the school year, they’re used to her background vocals.

In a different school, or even at Sitton a year or two earlier, the child, who is nonverbal and has autism, wouldn’t have been in a room with typically developing students. Her needs are complex enough that she would have been in one of Portland Public Schools’ 36 specialized classrooms for elementary and K-8 students who need intensive support, which are housed inside roughly half the district’s school serving elementary pupils.

Such rooms are typically staffed with one special education teacher for about a dozen children plus three full-time paraeducators, with support from others, including occupational therapists, speech language pathologists and school psychologists.

But Sitton is on the leading edge of a major change aimed to transform special education across Portland Public Schools. Over the next eight years or so, the district will no longer send students with disabilities except those with the most profound needs, such as severe emotional disorders, to schools outside their neighborhoods.

Next year, five more North Portland elementary or K-8 schools — Astor, Peninsula, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks and James John — will join Sitton and the other pilot site, Marysville Elementary in Southeast Portland. The changes will begin with kindergarteners and roll up year by year across grade levels.

The change will have a particular impact on students of color, who statistics show are overrepresented in special education-specific classrooms. And it means that roughly 900 or so high needs students who would otherwise have been assigned to such classrooms will instead spend far more time sitting side by side with typically developing kids who live down the street or around the corner.

The system of sending students to schools outside their neighborhoods and to separate classrooms for the majority of their day teaches everyone — principals, parents, teachers and students — that “these kids who look different and sound different don’t belong here,” said Becky Berry, Sitton’s principal. “Whereas what our third graders are learning now is that not everyone communicates the same way, but they can still have a relationship across differences. This often gets looked at as a cure for what ails special education, but this is really about creating a microcosm of our world for everybody.”

Statewide Patchwork

Portland Public Schools — and the state of Oregon — are relatively late to the inclusion movement, which is rooted in the 1990 passage of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That law requires that “to the maximum extent possible” school districts must place students with disabilities into general education classrooms and remove them only after all efforts to meet their needs have failed.

But in Oregon, such decisions are made at the local level and without a concerted --- and binding – push by state leaders, families have experienced wildly different practices, even in neighboring districts.

The needs of special education students vary widely. Many spend only a few hours a week away from the rest of their classmates working with a specialist, while others need a one-on-one aide at all times. A tiny minority may need to spend time in an entirely separate educational setting, like Portland’s Pioneer Special School Program, which will continue, said Jey Buno, the district’s chief of student support services.

The Oregon Department of Education says districts should aim to ensure that at least three fourths of their special education students spend 80 percent or more of their day inside a regular classroom. Ideally, the state says, fewer than 9 percent of higher-needs special education students should be away from their peers most of their school day.

But there are no consequences for districts that miss those targets.

Portland, Beaverton and Hillsboro, the three largest metro area districts, all report that more than 80 percent of their special education students spend at least five hours of their six-plus hour school day with general education peers, according to data from 2021-2022, the most recent available.

That’s not true in Gresham-Barlow, though, where only 70 percent of special education students met that target, or in the North Clackamas school district, where only 66 percent of special education students did.

Across the Columbia River in Washington, there’s a coordinated statewide effort to focus attention and resources on including special education students in general education classrooms, anchored by $42 million earmarked to train educators on how to support inclusion. Pilot programs are underway in nearly 250 school districts, and between 2018 and 2022, the percentage of special education students spending at least 80 percent of their time in regular classrooms jumped 5 percentage points, to 64 percent.

Oregon has no such initiative.

In Portland’s suburbs, the comparatively wealthy and white West Linn- Wilsonville district stands out. There, 95 percent of students with disabilities spend almost their entire day in general education classrooms, and the graduation rate for special education students is 90 percent, 21 percentage points above the state average for students with disabilities. (The district’s overall graduation rate of 91 percent also outperforms the state average by 10 percentage points.)

Its special education students also exceed their counterparts statewide on state math tests, though their results are more mixed in reading and writing, according to the most recent data available from the state education department.

West Linn- Wilsonville decided to move to an inclusion model in 2012, propelled both by numbers and emotion, said Lauren Brigsby, the district’s special education director. At the time, staffing a separate classroom was prohibitively expensive because of a dip in the number of students with extraordinarily high needs, Brigsby said. And teachers and principals advocated trying inclusion.

Today, with every new hire, the district makes clear its expectations around inclusion, she said — a key part of sustaining momentum and commitment.

“By now, we are getting to a whole generation of students where this is what they know of school,” she said. “We see this as civil rights work. It’s about a belief in all of our kids.”

‘It Doesn’t Need to Be Quiet to Do My Job’

When this school year got underway, it didn’t take long for Fuller, the third grade teacher at Sitton, to start fielding phone calls and discrete queries from parents of her typically developing students. Their kids were coming home with stories about yelling in class and they wanted to know what was going on.

So Fuller, who has been teaching for seven years, found herself explaining: Her class was an experiment, homebase for three significantly disabled children who otherwise would have been in a classroom serving only high needs students.

“It was difficult in the beginning,” she said. “Because typically, when we’re learning, when I’m talking, it’s quiet. So I had to learn that it doesn’t have to be quiet for me to do my job.”

Together, she and her students read books about disabilities, and her students got used to asking her to repeat something they’d missed. The shift was palpable for the special education students too, she said: “They know they can be loud and aren’t going to get weird looks or anything like that. They know they can feel safe in our classroom, to be their authentic selves.”

None of it happened overnight, she said. One of her special education students, who had a history of classroom outbursts, needed to gradually build up to attending school full-time. The child initially came in to explore the classroom only when it was quiet or to meet her one-on-one. It was weeks into the school year before his parents felt confident enough about the placement to let him come to school for full days.

Fuller had to adapt her teaching, too, beyond the many micro-modifications that most educators make to meet each student at their level. When the rest of her class works on reading and writing, her special needs students do too, even if it looks different for them.

During the moonshot lesson, for example, the non-verbal student was set up with a huge array of learning aids — an iTunes player with pink headphones provides music to help her stay calm, a foam roller for when she feels physically overwhelmed, a stuffed hedgehog to clutch for security, an iPad with a vocabulary matching game and flashcards to practice recognizing letter blends and sounds.

Also there to help her and the other students with complex disabilities in Fuller’s class: Audrey Cole, one of four special education teachers assigned to Sitton, and Michelle Rodriguez and Sarah Barton, two of the school’s 10 paraeducators. Cole is new to Sitton this year and has seen the students she works most closely with unfurl and unlock, she said.

Co-teaching with Fuller has helped them both understand the non-verbal girl’s strengths, Cole said. “We didn’t know that she was a mathematician. We didn’t know that she was a whole word reader. And that her phonics skills are on point. We didn’t know any of that because she didn’t have opportunities to see other students working at this higher level and realize, ‘Oh, I can do that. I just have different access points.’”

Cole counts herself as a true believer in the inclusion model. But she is clear that it requires both a mindset and a shift in resources to make it work, as well as time for classroom teachers and special educators to plan together.

“I think that if you were to roll out without the proper support, you’re asking people to do the impossible with nothing,” she said. “But seeing it work and being able to work with people who also truly believe in it feels very motivating.”

Hope and Skepticism

Much of the apprehension around PPS’s slow shift to inclusion revolves around whether the supports and collaboration at Sitton can be replicated at every school. Special education families who’ve had to hire legal representation to get their students’ needs met say they are deeply doubtful, particularly given planned budget cutbacks for the 2024-2025 school year include an array of special education support positions, including adaptive physical education specialists and those who coach front-line educators on how to help students eat and communicate via technology.

When Jenny Eckart Hoyt’s daughter Winnie, who has a rare genetic condition that impedes her speech and mobility, started kindergarten at Sitton in 2021, she was in the school’s former “focus” classroom. That environment felt nurturing and tailored to Winnie’s needs, her mother said: At morning meetings, each child took turns using a communication device to say hello.

“They really took their time to meet those kids where they were at,” Eckart Hoyt said. Winnie would join her general education classmates for music and at recess, but the focus room was a familiar, comforting home base.

This year, as Winnie moved into a second grade general education classroom, Eckart Hoyt had reservations, even though she trusted Sitton’s staff. Principal Berry and the school’s educators, she said, had always made Winnie feel safe and loved, never “othering” her.

Six months in, the year has brought some profound joys for their family as well some grieving for the focus room community they lost. On Valentine’s Day, Winnie brought home a handmade card from a classmate. “Dear Winnie,” it read. “I am so glad to be you’re [sic] bestie Love Vera.”

“We had no idea,” Eckart Hoyt said. “We didn’t know there was a genuine friendship until we got that valentine. I don’t know if she would have made that special connection if she had been in the other classroom.”

But Eckart Hoyt said she’s not convinced that Portland Public Schools can successfully fund and scale up the inclusion model.

“The cart is before the horse,” she said. “The schools aren’t ready. Some of them aren’t accessible. … They are cutting specialized staff, like adaptive physical education and the feeding team. So how can you look at me and say those cuts are necessary, but we’re also going to have however many more schools that can support (kids like) Winnie? I just don’t buy it.”

Eckart Hoyt pointed out that Sitton has educated plenty of kids like Winnie, but that’s not true of every school in Portland. A one-size-fits-all model, especially an untested one, could be a hard sell, she said.

“It should be whatever the family decides is best,” she said. “If that’s going to the school in their neighborhood that maybe has never had a kiddo like theirs, that’s great. But some of us don’t feel that confident in our kid being a science experiment.”

Parent Susan Carson says she is such a believer in inclusion that she fought tooth and nail for her son, who has Down Syndrome, to be a part of a general education classroom at their local middle school in Northeast Portland. Her family was so committed that they hired a lawyer and were prepared to sue. Eventually, the district acquiesced, she said.

But the experience wasn’t what they’d hoped for. Her son struggled mightily; a favorite special education teacher, exhausted and overwhelmed, quit. Eventually, they gave up on insisting their son spend most of his day in general education, and he’s now in an intensive skills classroom for high needs students at their neighborhood high school, where Carson says he’s finally doing well.

“I want to be clear: It’s working great not because of anything inherent about the model, but because the support is there. It was never there during the years of inclusion, but could have been if the district prioritized sufficient staffing,” she told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

How to pay for inclusion crops up every time a school system starts down this path, said Sandi Cole, the director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of Indiana, who has written extensively about the issue.

“The divide between special education and general education has to be diminished in order for this to work,” Cole said. “And that means that roles and functions of teachers and service delivery folks in schools have to be reconsidered. It really means that the general education teachers will assume shared responsibility for those students. And that’s a big leap.”

Buno, the district’s student support services chief, said Sitton is proof that the district will put support employees where students need them.

The well-documented paraeducator shortage has eased, if not completely abated, he said. The district now has about a dozen current vacancies, down from around 65 in 2022, he said. The newest contract with the union representing paraeducators delivers wage increases and bonuses that Buno said will help with recruitment.

Still, educators in Portland say they back the district’s concept in theory but worry about adding more work to already-full plates.

“Doing true inclusion is absolutely possible and very expensive,” said Sara Tretter, a special education teacher at Alameda Elementary in Northeast Portland. “It requires investing heavily in special education, and the outcomes can be incredible for everyone. But if you don’t invest heavily and do it right, everyone will feel frustrated.”

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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