When Ivalee Sinclair’s son started showing signs of a learning disability in the 1960s, the mother of six had no idea who to turn to for help. There were few school-based resources and no federal law even defining what a learning disability was.

“No one knew how to help him,” said the 87-year-old Sinclair.  “I went through what I call the school of hard knocks.”

Special education services have changed dramatically in the five decades that Sinclair — who recently finished a four-year term as chair of the state’s Special Education Advisory Council — has spent advocating for children with disabilities.

The Hawaii Department of Education now employs speech pathologists, counselors and social workers to help students with everything from mild learning disabilities to severe autism, and works with parents to create an Individualized Education Program for each child.

But ask Sinclair about how things are going in the state, and you get a surprising answer.

“It’s worse now than it’s ever been,” she said of special education services 10 years after Hawaii emerged from federal court supervision of its program. “I don’t see the changes taking place in areas where they need to be taking place.”

Anne Sullivan Memorial Statue - Special education

A breakthrough moment in special education when teacher Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller shared her first word, “water,” in sign language is depicted in this sculpture by Mico Kaufman in Sullivan’s hometown of Feeding Hills, Massachusetts.

Julie Jordan Scott/Flickr.com

It might be easy to dismiss Sinclair’s statement as disillusioned opinion formed by years of listening to isolated tales of woe from parents whose children have been let down by the system. But statistics paint a rather grim picture.

In the last decade, the achievement gap between special education students and their peers has increased. Substantially.

In 2004-05, special education students in the state scored an average of 21 percent lower in math. In 2013-14 that number was 48.8 percent.

“Our special education students are not performing as they should be.” — Suzanne Mulcahy, assistant state superintendent

Hawaii has gone from being one of nine states in 2005 to meet federal requirements in special education to one of 27 states ranked as “needs assistance” for two years in a row.

And while the percentage of special education teachers deemed highly qualified under federal standards has increased in Hawaii, they are still the mostly likely to be young, inexperienced, and either unlicensed or teaching outside of their field.

It’s not just parents and special education advocates raising the alarm.

In an internal survey conducted by the teachers union earlier this spring and released to members Wednesday, 31 percent of teachers said the needs of their special education students were either not being met or only seldom met.

“We need to improve,” said Assistant Superintendent Suzanne Mulcahy. “Our special education students are not performing as they should be.”

But Mulcahy, a former special education teacher and complex area superintendent who took over the DOE office that oversees special education earlier this year, has a more optimistic opinion of where the state is heading. Changes are on the way, she said. 

Closing the achievement gap between general education and special education students will take hard work, but “it is possible,” she said.

‘Felix’ Case Had Been Turning Point

Numerous advocates and teachers said their frustration with the system stems from what they view as a backslide in local efforts since federal court supervision of the state’s special education program ended in 2005.

The state had been under supervision for more than a decade, after it was sued by the family of Maui special education student Jennifer Felix for failing to provide federally mandated services to special needs students.

“It’s frustrating, but I’ve never entertained the fantasy that by filing a lawsuit we were going to fix these problems that are essentially at the whim of politicians,” said Eric Seitz, the attorney who represented Felix in the case.  “A lot of the problems come back to money and a willingness to address the issues.”

HSTA survey of SpEd teachers

Marina Riker/Civil Beat

Despite a common perception that funding has decreased since Felix, however, state spending on special education actually increased from $295 million in 2005 to $342 million this year, Mulcahy said. During the same time, the number of special education students in the state decreased by about 1,000.

But teachers say that changes in how that funding is allocated has meant cuts to everything from classroom funds for materials to transportation for disabled students.

“The court oversight dropped, and the system has gone back to, ‘This is the way we do it and you can’t come in and tell us otherwise.'” — Ivalee Sinclair

Up until 2005, the DOE used a weighted formula that took into consideration the number of children in each school complex area as well as the severity of the children’s needs. In 2010, in response to complaints the system was too complicated, the DOE switched to a straight per-student allocation.

That’s meant a dramatic shift for some schools in the number of personnel available to help special needs students.

Among the state cuts since Felix oversight ended, Seitz said, was a Department of Health program to help identify infants with possible disabilities for early intervention.

“The court oversight dropped, and the system has gone back to, ‘This is the way we do it and you can’t come in and tell us otherwise,’” Sinclair said. “From my viewpoint it went back to the silos and misconceptions and lack of training and support.”

More Support Needed

Ask parents, teachers, advocates and even lawyers about what should be done to improve special education and you get a slew of answers.

Some say there’s not enough money being allocated, others place the blame on a lack of collaboration or consistency from island to island or even school to school.

There’s not enough parent input into the planning process for students’ Individualized Education Programs, according to several parents who’ve gone so far as to move to another community or pull their child from public school entirely in an effort to get them the services they need.

There are, however, a few issues that they seem to agree on: The state needs more qualified special education teachers and specialists, and more support and professional development for the ones in place.

The state has been facing a shortage of special education teachers since the early-1990s. That’s in part due to issues like the high cost of living, but there’s also a national shortage in special education teachers.

“Being a special education teacher is very challenging,” Mulcahy said, adding that even some teachers in Hawaii who do have a special education license choose not to continue working in the field.

Special Ed in Hawaii

When schools can’t find enough special education teachers they often turn to emergency hires, or move general education teachers over to special education assignments.

Hawaii doesn’t just have a shortage of special education teachers that are licensed and highly qualified, Mulcahy said, the state also has a shortage of teachers with specialized licenses in areas like autism. 

Last year, the DOE offset part of an overall state reduction in education funding by using about $5 million of special education money that it had set aside for positions it was unable to fill

At the same time that some schools are understaffed, special education teachers are facing an increase in paperwork for the IEPs and federal reporting, and more internal data requirements, said Jessica Wong-Sumida, executive director of the Autism Society of Hawaii. That all places additional demands on their time.

Of the 1,762 teachers who responded to the Hawaii State Teacher Association’s survey, 61 percent said they weren’t receiving the support they needed to meet the needs of their special education students, and 73 percent reported not being given enough time to plan lessons.

Mulcahy said numerous efforts are underway to tackle both the teacher shortage and the need for greater professional development — including support programs for general education teachers willing to switch to special education and learning modules aimed at helping teachers who work with a mix of general and special education students meet the needs of everyone in their class.

‘I Needed a Team’

Lana Stuart uprooted her family this month and moved from one side of Hawaii Island to the other so her son could go to a school with more services.

Stuart hopes that her son, who was diagnosed with learning disabilities in kindergarten, will do better at a school where the entire team working with him meets every Friday to review issues and plan for the coming week — something that never happened at his previous elementary school.

“I didn’t just want to rely on one teacher, I needed a team, a group of people to really help with him,” Stuart said. “I moved because I was going to do whatever our  family needed. It’s like moving Moses to the mountain.”

A key goal moving forward, Mulcahy said, will be identifying programs that are successful and replicating them.

“In order for the school or system to move forward you have to have consistent excellence,” Mulcahy said. “We are going to look for areas that are doing better than others and then we are going to take those bright spots and scale their success.”

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