BOE, superintendent favorably respond to teachers’ testimony on SPED difficulties

Nine teachers from around the state testified before the Board of Education Tuesday night about a wide variety of serious problems with special education in Hawaii’s public schools, and BOE members as well as the schools superintendent said fixing those problems is a priority.

Renee Wood, who teaches at Waihee Elementary on Maui, told the BOE, “I love being able to advocate, support and teach students of all abilities. But year after year, I’m given impossible tasks.”

“The reality is, I feel like I’m drowning. My students aren’t getting the support that they need to be on grade level. My students are at a variety of levels and needs and are put into a one-size-fits all,” Wood said. “Every year we get more severe behavioral students who distract from everyone’s classes. Special ed classes become a dumping ground for problem children. I have become a babysitter, not a teacher.”

“I am done,” Wood said, her voice choked with emotion. “I am burned out and I am not the only teacher. We need to find solutions to keep highly qualified teachers from burning out and leaving this profession. We need to come together to make sure every child is learning to the best of their ability. Our Hawaii keiki need more.”

Juliana Romero, an autism consultant teacher for Oahu’s Central district, routinely works with teachers and students at 16 schools. 
“Public school teachers do not have the resources to effectively teach special education students,” Romero testified.

For example, she said, “A 10th grade student on Oahu has to learn curriculum meant for students without a disability. He has to perform activities such as writing when he is not able to hold a pencil. Others are expected to perform and be assessed using grade-level standards when they are still at the 1st grade level.”

The state is constantly not living up to the BOE’s policy 105-12 that says the DOE should “provide appropriate instructional resources, planning time and support staff to meet the individual needs of students,” Romero said.

Further, she said while the policy also says the state should “provide programs and services in all schools for students with disabilities to learn, along side their peers without disabilities,” in reality, “this is not the case.”

Shannon Kaaa, a preschool education teacher at Fern Elementary on Oahu, testified she’s concerned about the achievement gap for children with special needs.

For the past five years, she’s served on HSTA’s negotiations team working on two contracts, and met with numerous special education teachers to hear their concerns from across the state.

“Many special education teachers tell me they don’t have the instructional time with their children in the inclusion setting,” Kaaa said. “I really believe in inclusion. I’ve been teaching in a preschool inclusion setting for 15 years, teaming with Head Start, and I truly see a lot of successes and there have only been a few times that I haven’t been able to service children from our school at our inclusion class.”

“As we move forward to encourage more inclusion, please don’t just look at where the students are, look at who is teaching those children,” Kaaa said.

Mary K. Dowells, a Maui middle school teacher, has taught special and general education for more than 20 years in Hawaii.

She has chosen to be a career and technical education teacher instead of teaching SPED because of “the systemic issues and challenges that you’ve heard over and over tonight that face our special education teachers.”

A former special education department chair, she has seen SPED both as an administrator and a teacher.

“Despite our state’s incentives of $10,000 to have teachers like myself return to the special education classroom, that $10,000 is not enough for me to sacrifice my time after school when every single IEP averages three hours to author, then to meet with the parents, then to create a draft, then to go back and finalize it, to make sure that community organizations are working with our DOE. It’s not worth it,” Dowells said.

“It’s not just simply having more services for our teachers, more professional development. We want to look at how we can serve the public education students, their individual outcomes. And how we can have teachers like myself, who are seasoned, who have lots of love and aloha and experience and education to give back to our students, who refuse to go back into the special education classrooms because it’s such a challenge,” Dowells added.

Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto told the teachers “I believe we’re all on the same page in terms of having this (special education) as a number one issue,” prompting applause from the teachers and parents of special education students.

The superintendent is conducting a special review of special education.

“It’s a priority of the board,” said BOE Vice Chair Brian De Lima.

Nathan Krahn, a second year SPED English Language Arts teacher at Radford High, said he regularly works with educational assistants who have no training in the basics for autistic students, supports or accommodations for special needs students.

He also said teachers and EAs are not being trained on technology that can help students with special needs, such as voice-to-text capabilities in smart phones for students who are unable to type.

HSTA Vice President Justin Hughey, who teaches special education at King Kamehameha III Elementary on Maui, pointed out that the HSTA has been advocating for special education students and teachers for years.

In 2015, Hughey said, HSTA created a special education survey which asked teachers “Are you confident you can meet the SPED minutes required on the service grid for your caseload?” A full 39 percent of teachers answered “no.”

In 2016, HSTA submitted a bill to the Legislature asking for more funding for special education and lawmakers said that request had to be addressed in negotiations for a new teacher contract, which were going to begin later that year.

This year, the Department of Education refused to negotiate anything on special education in the four-year contract that was approved in April of 2017.

“Since the previous leadership at the Department of Education refused to negotiate anything, not even planning time in the new four-year contract, your action is needed,” Hughey implored the BOE.

“Inclusion really isn’t best for all students when you don’t have the support,” Hughey said. “It’s common for SPED teachers to look over more than two grade levels, about 20 students, which is about 12 to 14 classrooms with all of them needing help in language arts and that happens at the same time. And you simply can’t be in the same place in 12 different locations.”

“SPED students may be in the classroom without any help and are intimidated by the general education curriculum, and behavioral problems occur,” Hughey added.

“The first step, really, is we need to obtain the data,” Hughey said. “We need to know how many SPED positions are out there, how many are filled with a highly qualified teacher, how are filled with a substitute, how many have an emergency hire?”

While nine teachers testified during the BOE’s night meeting at Mililani Middle School, four parents of special education students also came out to testify about various difficulties their children face. Another ten or so teachers wearing red shirts filled the audience to offer support to their SPED colleagues who spoke before the board.

BOE member Hugh Minn told the group that “This is why we want more meetings (night meetings) like this. When you have meetings at 1:30 in the afternoon, the public can’t get out there.”

Minn, who disclosed that he has a 33-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, said the DOE needs qualified teachers working with special education students.

“I have an optimistic feeling we’re going to move forward. I am very optimistic that this board will be making some changes,” Minn said.

Another 19 teachers submitted written testimony to the BOE. Eleven of the teachers who either wrote or delivered testimony before the board just completed HSTA Speakers Bureau messaging training on Sunday or Monday, using that training time to craft and hone their messages.