Can The New Director Fix Seattle Public Schools' Floundering Special Education Department?

The special education director must turn the program around in time for a critical June deadline
seattle public schools seattle magazine
Special education executive director Zakiyyah McWilliams has made a five year commitment to fixing Seattle Public Schools’ struggling program

It has become almost routine in Seattle’s public schools: A child with learning challenges—anything from difficulty with a particular subject to deafness to attention deficit disorder—is sent to school armed with a plan tailored by family and specialists. But due to inadequate training, limited resources and/or the lack of a clear policy the plan isn’t fulfilled. The child struggles academically and socially, and falls behind. He or she comes to dread school; new difficulties crop up. The parents are beside themselves knowing how critical it is to get it right but unaware of how to get their child’s needs addressed.

It has been seven years since a report from the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit research group, strongly criticized special education in Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Reviewers described a program that labeled and isolated special education students, marginalized lower-income students and students of color and reinforced a message that students with disabilities cannot achieve as much as those without.

Today, the city’s special education program—which covers more than 7,000 Seattle Public School students, roughly one in seven—remains mired in many of the same problems, exacerbated by a patchwork approach to providing services and a leadership vacuum. In the spring of 2013, these problems led the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction for the state of Washington to tell SPS to fix the problems or risk losing its annual $11 million in federal special education financing. The clock is ticking: The deadline for a fix is this June.

“I know it’s going to be a lot of work still,” says Zakiyyah McWilliams, who became the executive director one year ago, making her the seventh person in the post in just five years. McWilliams has been working in special education for more than three decades, most notably in the Compton Unified School District in California, known for the challenges it has presented its teachers and administrators. “Even in the most well run special education departments there is usually not a day that goes by when you do not deal with having to solve issues. It’s the nature of the job and you have to love it to do it.”

Under McWilliams, the department has made progress on a required comprehensive corrective action plan, and after a number of versions were rejected by the state, the plan is now in the implementation phase. That plan includes everything from increasing the compliance of individualized education programs (known as IEPs) and improving communication to maintaining stable leadership at the district level.

“[The plan] is our guiding light with respect to how we’re going to make the significant changes that need to happen for this school year,” says McWilliams, who has made a five-year commitment to the district. “We’ve had to build the airplane while it’s in flight.”

Among the key issues to be addressed is the overrepresentation of students in special education, especially those from minority and low-income groups. There are 14 different categories in special education—some of which are subjective. Critics point out that the category of emotional and behavioral disorder invites a teacher or other school representative to place a student in that category simply based on disruptive behavior, because that is an easier solution than helping him or her learn the proper way to behave—a choice that affects the rest of the student’s life.

In the action plan, McWilliams and her staff address the issue with specific training to help school psychologists recognize special education referrals that are erroneously based on criteria other than special needs.

Another important shift outlined in the plan is an effort to modify how the district internally identifies special education students. After the 2007 report, the district moved away from labeling students with a disability, which was seen as marginalizing. But McWilliams feels the current system is too complicated. “We’ve had to change our continuum of services from a lot of letters, numbers and codes to something that makes more sense to all of us internally as we try to track where students are,” she explains. She declined to make the new designations public.

The reorganization of special education categories and the rest of the changes outlined in the action plan are not the only things some parents believe need adjustment. Hannah Marzynski, who is on the special education task force helping to steer the reforms, wants to change how services are delivered in the schools. Currently, Seattle Public Schools has resource rooms in every school, delivering non-intensive-type services, such as specialized help for students with learning disabilities. The group doesn’t want that changed. But it would like to see a more tailored approach for intensive services that would be broken up between students predominately in general education classrooms, those given emotional and behavioral services, those given a more individual learning atmosphere because a large classroom is detrimental to their learning, and those working on skills and curricula that are distinct from a general education curriculum. So far, the Superintendent for Public Instruction has pledged to implement these changes.

A member of the Special Education Advocacy & Advisory Council, Marzynski is also the parent of a middle school student in special education. Even with all of her involvement in the system, she says that every time something changes with her son’s needs it is a big challenge to have those changes reflected in his educational experience. However, she makes an important distinction: stressing that at the school level, she sees a lot of effort on her son’s behalf; it’s the district she has found unresponsive and unhelpful. But she says she remains cautiously optimistic about positive changes, especially those outlined in the task force’s proposals. “I think that we can get to a better place here,” she says. “I don’t think I would want to talk about it if I didn’t think that capacity existed, because then it’s just, frankly, too depressing.”

The process to fix the system is going to be long and arduous, but for a demographic of students for which every day is crucial, parents and teachers are anxious to see changes immediately. “I don’t see any improvement yet,” says Mary Griffin, who is president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA, a nonprofit organization that works to advocate for students with disabilities while assisting their families.

Griffin is also the mother of a special education student. A couple years ago, she spoke out about some of their challenges. After her adopted son began to exhibit regressive behaviors at home, she talked to his teachers. She learned he was being restrained in the classroom, which she believes was triggering new problems. At the time, she didn’t know she had the right to file a complaint.

“The executive director says we need to be patient…and I would say she’s had to deal with a lot of issues, but the first thing I would like to see is better communication,” Griffin says. “The system in Seattle is very difficult to navigate. There’s not very good communication about what the process entails or what services are available or where or how to access the services.”

In addition to reorganizing the administrative team to better address the plethora of citizen complaints, McWilliams has added the position of special education family engagement coordinator, specifically for this purpose.

But Griffin wants to see a more fundamental adjustment. “Until the district gets to the point where it realizes special education students are general education students first,” she says, “[necessary changes are] not going to happen.”

While Seattle Public Schools waits to see if it will qualify for its regular infusion of federal funds, those who work in the field know that even if the money comes through, it’s just a small drop in a very large bucket. Despite the fact that the federal government mandates special education services and by law promises to cover 40 percent of the cost of that mandate, it comes closer to covering only about 16 percent. This places a rigorous burden on each district, making positive changes that much more difficult to implement. Which means the June deadline is just one juncture in a long effort.

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