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Following Felix * First of three parts


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Big gains not enough

After the federal court ended its supervision of public school programs for special-needs students, the state has spent more money and improved services, but parents and advocates say serious problems remain

By Mary Vorsino

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 12:09 p.m. HST, Dec 13, 2010


Five years after federal court oversight of Hawaii's special education system was lifted, ending a $1 billion overhaul of programs for disabled students, services for the state's 19,000 special-needs children in public schools are more robust than ever, accounting for more than one-fifth of the state's education budget and employing more than 7,900 people.

Most agree that Hawaii's special-education system has made big gains since 1993, when the mother of Maui special-needs student Jennifer Felix filed what would become a huge class-action suit on behalf of all learning-disabled children in the islands over a dearth of services available to them.

The state's budget for special education ballooned under "Felix" federal oversight, and spending continues to grow -- increasing nearly 40 percent since 2004 to $542 million in the 2008-09 school year. The bulk of that is for personnel -- teachers and educational assistants -- and for behavioral health services.

But interviews with parents and advocates, and reviews of state documents, show a host of serious problems remain. The system is letting children fall through the cracks, they say. Special-needs students are not meeting their full potential, are showing no growth in math and reading on state assessments and are leaving school unprepared for the world, in part because of poor transition services.

The result, one advocate said, is that youth with special needs continue to be a "forgotten population."

"Society is going to end up taking care of them (special-needs youth)," said John Dellera, Hawaii Disability Rights Center executive director. "They leave school at age 18 or maybe at 20, and they can't do anything. Their situation is not good. These kids are capable of doing a lot more."

There continue to be concerns about the quality of services provided and complaints about how aware schools are of what they are required to offer students with disabilities.

More than a dozen parents interviewed by the Star-Advertiser said dealing with their child's school and the Department of Education is often frustrating or intimidating and that they do not always feel school officials have their child's best interests at heart, but instead are more worried about costs.

Several parents also said they were misinformed by their child's school as to what the state's responsibilities are under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA requires all special-needs children be given a free appropriate public education. Figuring out what services a student requires is done at Individualized Education Program meetings, during which school administrators, teachers and other professionals sit across from parents and talk about how a student is progressing, what is needed to improve the student's learning and what services are helping.

In August, Maureen McComas received an introduction to the IEP process after enrolling her 3-year-old daughter Gracie, who has Down syndrome, in preschool at Holomua Elementary in Ewa Beach. McComas said it was at that meeting that Holomua officials detailed what services Gracie would get, and told her that the child was receiving the "maximum amount" of services available to any IDEA child.

There is no limit to services, though. Rather, they are provided depending on a student's needs. And the school subsequently offered more services.

Later, McComas was told by Ewa Beach Elementary, where she was referred to a preschool for medically fragile students, that Gracie could not come to school on days when a nurse who worked with another student was not there. Any time that the student was sick and the nurse was gone, Gracie would have to stay home because there would not be a nurse available in case Gracie's feeding tube dislodged, McComas said she was told.

"I was absorbing all this ... and thinking, I don't think you can say that -- that a child can't come to school," said McComas, sitting in her living room on a recent morning as Gracie played nearby, giggling intermittently. "They say the parents are a huge part of the IEP team, but everything was predetermined. This was your offer, take it or leave it. It's been disheartening."

The Department of Education cannot comment on the McComas case or any others because of student privacy rights, but said it is dedicated to providing special-needs students with an appropriate education and the services they need to do well. Department officials said they recognize the system is far from perfect and that more work is needed to make sure schools understand what is required of them.

The department is responsible for providing educational services for special-needs students ages 3 to 20, who represent the vast majority of special-education youth. The Health Department offers early intervention for special-needs children younger than 3, and mental health services to 1,800 high-needs children.

Debra Farmer, the special-education section administrator, said Felix federal oversight sent "lots of money" into special education and created an array of programs. Now the emphasis is not on beefing up services, but on tailoring them and improving the quality of programs, she said.

"Now we have to look at our accountability, both program-wise and fiscally," Farmer said.

As part of that effort, the state awarded a $415,000 contract in August to WestEd, an education development and research firm, to evaluate special education in Hawaii and make recommendations on how to improve the system, student performance and outcomes. The report is set to be released in June.

Ronn Nozoe, deputy superintendent, said the department already has some ideas on where improvements are needed. But, he added, five years after Felix oversight ended, the department can claim some big successes. Schools have more services, especially more mental health services, than ever before. And the department is taking new steps, as part of education reforms, to make more gains and to focus on "quality for all students" rather than compliance alone.

Still, continuing concerns with special-education services in Hawaii range from the systemic to the academic, and some contend that they are only getting worse:

» The state's rate of due-process claims -- filed by parents who say services for their child were inadequate -- remains one of the highest in the nation, and parents prevail in about half the cases that are decided by a hearings officer. (In most other states, school districts prevail in the vast majority of cases.) Meanwhile, many cases are never decided, but settled by the department.

» Special-needs students continue to perform poorly on state tests, far below their peers on the mainland and below the goals the department set out for special-education students in plans filed with the federal government. Last school year, 89 percent of Hawaii special-needs children in third through eighth and 10th grades failed to meet math benchmarks on the annual Hawaii State Assessment, and 80 percent were not on target for reading.

» Hawaii is last in the nation for the amount of time special-needs children spend in general-education classrooms. In 2007 more than 80 percent of special-education kids spent at least one-fifth of their day outside general-education classrooms, compared with the national average of 50 percent. Every other state -- along with Palau, the Virgin Islands and Guam -- ranked above Hawaii that year.

» The transition from high school is extraordinarily problematic for special-education youth, and many are ill-prepared for the real world. Advocates say the strength of transition help for special-needs students varies widely from high school to high school, and many students are never linked to services in the community, including occupational skills programs, that could help them succeed.

"With this population the outcomes are very dismal," said Robert Stodden, University of Hawaii Center on Disability Studies director. "Most don't enter regular employment. If you can't work and you can't earn money, all the other parts of your life drop off. You tend to start going downhill."

He pointed out the national picture is not much better.

Marian Tsuji, president and chief executive of Lanakila Pacific, which offers occupational rehabilitation and skills training for adults with disabilities, said special-needs youth cannot advocate well for themselves, and expectations for them are often far below what they should be.

"We're talking about a forgotten population," she said.

But advocates also say there is reason for hope about the future of special education in Hawaii.

Ivalee Sinclair, chairwoman of the Special Education Advisory Council, said new education reforms hold promise for improving achievement among all kids, including special-needs youth, and that a new emphasis on "quality control" also is promising.

She also said many parents are happy -- or at least satisfied -- with the services their special-needs child are receiving, and are working well with their child's school. "We're all looking at what's best for the child," she said. "When that isn't what the focus is, it's very easy to have miscommunication."

She added that miscommunication "leads to distrust" -- and litigation.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he believes though there might be persistent concerns about special education in Hawaii, they pale in comparison with the issues seen before the Felix case. "Overall, I do believe that given the resources the department has, they are trying to do the best they can for all children," he said. "In a perfect world we could appropriate another X amount of dollars and increase the number of therapists. That'd be wonderful.

"In the real world that's a challenge."

Still, the assurance that things have gotten better is little comfort to parents battling with the Education Department.

Sue Callahan, 50, had to quit her job as a real estate agent so she could work nearly full time on making sure her son was getting the right kinds of services.

Callahan adopted her son, who had been severely abused as a child and in several foster homes, when he was 7. He has post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorders and might also be autistic.

Now 13, he is being treated at a facility on the mainland after Callahan agreed in October 2009 to a nonmonetary settlement with the department in which the department did not admit any guilt.

The settlement included tuition at the mainland facility for this school year and "compensatory education" for Callahan's son until 22 (though special-education students normally leave the system at 20).

For too long, Callahan said, her son languished in special-education classes in Hawaii, where she says there were not services available to meet his high level of needs. On some days, she said, her son would be plunked in front of a television to watch "Cat in the Hat" in class because at least then he was calm.

"He is now getting what was recommended for him when he was 7," Callahan said. "I don't understand how they've been able to get away with this. What does a parent who can't take off work, who doesn't speak English, who's not willing to put their whole life on the line to get those services do?"

Other parents, though, say the system is working for them.

Abbie Beamer said her 6-year-old son is thriving at Maunawili Elementary School, where he gets occupational therapy and help from a speech pathologist. The school, she said, has included her in all aspects of her child's education and has encouraged her to learn more about IDEA. The campus even offers training sessions on the law and brings in guest speakers occasionally to discuss key issues.

"It's just amazing," she said. "I'm just blessed."

For McComas, Gracie's mother, the back-and-forth with schools in Ewa Beach ended with a stalemate. McComas, after feeling intimidated and that she was lied to by officials at both schools, said she eventually declined to send her 3-year-old to either Holomua or Ewa Beach elementary. Instead, Gracie will continue attending her private preschool for two more years or until McComas can find a public school with a good program.

"A parent should never be treated that way," McComas said. "I know it doesn't have to be like this."






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