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Most Oregon school districts flunk special ed goals

Ohanian Comment: I wonder how committee decisions about what special educations WILL do help students. What is "quality education" mean in this context?

Betsy Hammond

Too many Oregon students who need special education services don't get the quality education that the state expects, and more than 1,400 of them dropped out last year, new state reports show.

In five Portland-metro districts, more special education students dropped out than earned a regular diploma, according to special education report cards issued by the Oregon Department of Education on Wednesday. Those districts are Gresham-Barlow, David Douglas, North Clackamas, Parkrose and Centennial.

Statewide, only one-third of special education students could read or do math at grade level, the reports say.

Oregon has higher expectations for educating its 72,000 special education students, two-thirds of whom have a learning disability or a speech or language impairment, said Nancy Latini, assistant state superintendent who oversees special education.

A panel of educators, parents and others helped Oregon set official targets that at least 58 percent of special education students should earn regular diplomas, no more than 6 percent should drop out a year, and no more than 11 percent should spend 60 percent of their day in special-ed-only settings.

Most school districts flunked those goals.

"Schools are doing as much as they can with the resources they've got," Latini said. "We're never satisfied when we don't reach the targets."

Oregon schools receive twice as much money from the state to educate a special education student compared with other students, or about $10,800 a year.

Angela Jarvis-Holland, mother of two Portland students and a board member of the NorthWest Down Syndrome Association, is optimistic that, by calling attention to statistical shortfalls, the report cards may prompt schools to do better.

She said it is important that the report cards not be seen as condemning special education departments, many of which already feel demoralized.

Getting better results for special education students will require constructive partnerships among special educators, principals, regular classroom teachers and parents, she said.

Her group, with help from Portland State University and Portland Public Schools, is hosting a conference this month to showcase ways schools can successfully educate students with disabilities in mainstreamed classrooms.

"We need to be looking for what is working and how we can get more of that in our state," she said. "I don't see how moving a child into a more restrictive environment creates more success."

According to the reports, a half-dozen metro districts including West Linn, Oregon Trail and North Clackamas placed more than 15 percent of their special education students in restricted classrooms where they spent more than 60 percent of their day apart from peers without disabilities.

There are many reasons that special education students quit school before they finish, says Mary Lou Johnson, director of special services in the Centennial School District, where 11 percent of special education students dropped out during 2006-07.

"They get frustrated. They get discouraged. They haven't connected. It seems hopeless. There's not a sense of belonging. The curriculum is not being modified in a way that they can progress through it," she said.

Johnson said forcing districts to examine dropout statistics for their special education students is a first step toward crafting better solutions.

"One of the things we are doing as a result is to monitor our students' individual education plans more carefully and to do more follow-up to make sure we don't have kids dropping through the cracks," Johnson said.

The state began issuing the report cards on special education last year, as required by a new federal law.

The state is required to track how many students in special education earn regular diplomas versus how many drop out. Students who earn special education diplomas, which show they have met their personalized education goals, are not counted in either group.

Statewide, 2,059 students in special education earned a regular diploma in 2007, while 1,461 dropped out of school during 2006-07.

According to the state report cards, Parkrose had the lowest rate of special education students earning regular diplomas at 13 percent. But Kathy Keim-Robinson, Parkrose's director of student services, said she thinks her department made an error when it turned in the data to the state. She has not yet found the mistake or calculated the correct rate, she said.

Anna Dvortcsak, a speech pathologist who specializes in working with families whose children have autism, said the report cards can be a useful way for parents to see the differences between districts.

Families sometimes think that their children are placed in a regular classroom or in a specialized class not based on the child's needs but on district preferences, she said. Parents can see patterns in the report cards -- such as the contrast between Parkrose, where 2 percent of special ed students spend most of their day in a restricted setting, versus West Linn-Wilsonville, where 21 percent of special needs students spend most of their school day in a special-ed-only class.

— Betsy Hammond
The Oregonian


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