POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 17, 2010
Five years after gaining removal from a decade-long federal court oversight, Hawaii's system for educating learning-disabled students continues to struggle. Successes within Hawaii's public school system and elsewhere in the country indicate that special education should be provided alongside general education students. Such integration, in various degrees depending on the special-needs student, has been proven to work, and Hawaii's Department of Education is wisely encouraging schools to adopt it.
The judiciary's oversight followed a 1993 lawsuit by the mother of Maui special-needs student Jennifer Felix that would turn into a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all learning-disabled children in the state. A judge oversaw the school system under a historic consent decree until 2005 as the system pledged to meet federal standards, an arduous and expensive process now permanently installed.
One would think that the Department of Education has gotten past the learning curve, but alas, Hawaii remains among the worst in the country in serving disabled children. Its special-needs eighth-graders scored 19 points below the national average in math for students with disabilities while 97 percent of Hawaii fourth-graders with special needs failed the reading portions of a test measured last year by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
It turns out that special-needs children score higher the more they are placed in general-education classrooms. However, in 2008, only 15 percent of Hawaii's special- education youth -- lowest in the country -- spent at least 80 percent of their school day in regular classes. The national average was 50 percent.
"If you are in a segregated environment, you are more likely to have a watered-down curriculum," Susan Rocco of the Special Parent Information Network in Hawaii explained to the Star-Advertiser's Mary Vorsino in this week's three-day series, "Following Felix." "You're also more likely to be stigmatized."
Campbell High School followed that tenet in the 2008-09 school year. All the special education students except those with the highest needs were placed in general-education classrooms for the entire school day, currently with 16 co-teachers in eight classrooms, and small gains were noticed almost immediately. More than one-fourth of 10th-graders met math learning benchmarks, from only 1 percent three years earlier, and the number of students proficient in reading rose to 42 percent.
Improving Hawaii's education for its 19,000 special-needs children has been expensive, increasing to $542 million in the 2008-09 school year, or 20 percent of the Education Department's budget, mainly to pay teachers and educational assistants. Still, many parents continue to find frustration in how their children are progressing, while others are satisfied. While such disparate experiences are not surprising given the nature of public education for the masses -- one size, indeed, does not fit all -- the sheer amount of dollars poured into special education demands better success. Educators will need to heed closely a $415,000 evaluation expected in June about special education in Hawaii and recommendations for improve-ments of the system and student perfor-mance.
The dearth, too, of preparation for transition for special-needs students aging out of public schools must be improved significantly. Where at all possible, maximizing the student's potential toward self-reliability is a much-preferred societal option over stagnant dependency.