Special Education

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Whatley k-8 school in Birmingham, Alabama, is just one of many battlefields for special education right now. Whatley’s students are overwhelmingly black and low-income and a lot of the school’s students – about 16% – are special needs. Principal Michael Wilson says combine that with a teacher shortage — and he feels like his hands are tied.

“I have one special ed vacancy and it’s going to take a big effort – there just aren’t enough special ed teachers out there to go around. My hopes are high that I’ll find somebody, but the reality is I probably won’t and I’ll probably end up having to put a substitute in that position and then overtaxing my other two special ed teachers.”

“It’s been a challenge,” says Pamela Wimbish, Whatley School’s speech language pathologist.

“The two people we have are really, really working hard trying to service the children and provide them what they need, but that extra person is just essential to make sure // they’re given the services that they need and the school small group instruction that some of them still do require.”

The pressure is on. Whatley’s special education students missed their No Child Left Behind benchmarks for math last year. That put Whatley on the list of “underperforming”schools. It had to offer students the opportunity to transfer to another school – and the state and federal money allotted to them went as well. That’s a major flaw, says principal Michael Wilson.

“It is a civil rights issue. It is a human rights issue. And for us to say that we are equally keeping students in mind, it’s just a joke! I mean, in some ways I believe this whole No Child Left Behind is pointed at making urban and poor, rural systems look bad.”

Urban and rural districts often have higher percentages of special education students. With No Child Left Behind up for reauthorization next year, lawmakers are crafting ways to shift some federal and state funding from richer suburban school districts to struggling urban and rural ones.

Some of that money could go to training. Classroom teachers often have only minimal training to deal with special needs children. And Birmingham’s public school’s director of special education Ruth Tucker says they often underestimate what a child can learn.

“Most of the children can learn and learn well if the teacher teaches them. However, teachers tend to generalize and assume that the child cannot learn and what happens is the teachers subconsciously perhaps, decide this is the way I’m teaching it and that’s that! He doesn’t learn this way, he’s special ed and that’s my reason. Let’s not use the term excuse, but that’s what it is. Rather than try another way to teach this child what you need him to learn.”

Parents of special needs kids often complain that they have to fight to get services for their children. The public opinion research group, Public Agenda surveyed 510 parents of special needs children. 35 percent of the parents surveyed said they found it “frustrating” to get the services they need. One in six said they considered suing their school districts. In August, a court awarded a California family nearly 7 million dollars to settle a case alleging their local school district didn’t do enough to educate their child. And the Supreme Court recently heard a case involving whether a school district should have to pay for private education for a child if the public school can’t meet the child’s special education needs.

Hoping to stave off similar lawsuits here, Birmingham city schools has hired a “family intervention teacher”. On this day, Gloria Kennon is meeting with about a dozen parents. Kennon talks about how parents can get involved at schools, offers information about community resources, and just generally works to allay parents concerns.

(parent) “He’s getting ready to go to high school and I’m so concerned about which high school he’s gonna go to, which program he’s gonna be in, how he gonna fit in… I’m concerned about what I hear about the high school… how he’s gonna fit in…”

(Kennon)”I am going to form a support group…”

Kennon’s background is in counseling — a welcome addition to the staff, says special education director Ruth Tucker.

“She’s not all wrapped up in the laws associated with it and the risk of being sued and those kind of fears. She comes to parents from a counselor’s perspective. She’s listens to them and she’s available to attend meeting with them at the school, to help ensure their concerns are addressed.”

Special education advocates say programs like this can go a long way towards diffusing the tension between parents and teachers, especially as schools like Whatley face shrinking resources and increasing demands.