Amanda Kaahanui decided to enroll her 14-year-old son, Ikaika, at Kailua Intermediate School in 2016 due to a special education inclusion initiative that features classrooms co-taught by a general education and special education teacher.
Though the school is located outside her home district, Kaahanui was drawn to the co-teaching inclusion model for her eighth-grader, who is deaf, and requires special instruction. She’s glad she made that decision.
Kaahanui, a program specialist at the Special Parent Information Network, said Ikaika has made the honor roll for the first three quarters, “for the first time ever.”
“When you look at him in the classroom, you can’t tell who has an IEP (Individualized Education Program) and who doesn’t, because they’re all just sitting together,” Kaahanui said. “He’s able to sit in the classroom, get the same instruction, talk about an assignment if he needs to. He’s not left out, and … as a parent, I’m not left out either.”
As Hawaii tries to narrow the achievement gap between special education students and general education students, one approach it’s emphasizing is inclusion, or the amount of time special education students are spending in a regular classroom.
Co-teaching is just one approach to inclusion, but it’s catching on in the state. Inclusion refers to a variety of integration approaches, but the goal is to blend special education students into the traditional classroom. Research shows it leads to improved attendance, better test results and more motivated students.
Yet the percentage of Hawaii students with disabilities that are taught in a traditional classroom at least 80 percent or more of the school day is far below the national average. Only about 37 percent of special ed students in Hawaii are in inclusion programs, compared with 62 percent in the rest of the country.
Hawaii school officials want to bump up the state’s inclusion rate to 51 percent by 2020, based on its strategic plan, the long-range education blueprint. Inclusion is among 14 student success indicators in the plan.
But some educators who recently submitted public testimony to the state Board of Education are concerned that without adequate planning time, resources or support from their schools, the state’s goal of raising its inclusion rate is a hollow effort.
“Many special education students are placed in a regular education classroom with little or no support,” wrote Helen Lau, who teaches English and Chinese at Moanalua High School. “A huge gap exists between what these students can do on their own and what their new classrooms demand of them.”
“It is really like throwing a beginning swimmer into the deep end of the water.”
Hawaii’s new schools superintendent, Christina Kishimoto, intends to tackle special education as one of her key initiatives. She recently convened a task force that will analyze best special education approaches around the state and report its findings to the board at the end of the year.
The effort comes more than a decade after a federal consent decree in Hawaii regarding special education services was lifted in 2005. The so-called Felix consent decree was implemented in 1994, following a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of Maui student Jennifer Felix alleging the state failed to provide appropriate services to children with disabilities under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
Under IDEA, students in special education must receive a free and appropriate public education — that means learning in the least restrictive environment based on their unique needs.
But special education advocates contend Hawaii is slipping back to the days before Felix. They point to a severe shortage of qualified special-ed teachers, little training, and a lack of coordination between agencies like DOE and the state Department of Health.
Advocates also say there is a failure to adequately include families in the planning and evaluation process for students’ IEPs.
More than 17,000 students — nearly 10 percent of the total student public school population in Hawaii — are enrolled this year in special education.
At the start of the 2016-17 school year, there were 126 special education teaching vacancies in the DOE. About 134 positions were filled by teachers without special education certification.
Statistics show just how much special education students struggle to keep pace. The graduation rate for special education students in Hawaii in 2014-15 was 60 percent, compared with the statewide average of 82 percent. Special education students were also suspended at more than twice the rate of general education students in 2015-16, according to the 2017 annual report by Hawaii’s Special Education Advisory Council.
Smarter Balanced Assessment results from the last several years also show that the large achievement gap between special education and general education students hasn’t narrowed. While the overall student rate for proficiency in English and Language Arts since 2014-15 averaged just under 50 percent, the rate for special education students was 13 percent.
The statewide student average for math proficiency over that same time frame is 41 percent, while for special education students it is 10.8 percent.
According to the Every Student Succeeds Act state plan submitted last month to the U.S. Department of Education, Hawaii wants to boost language arts proficiency among special education students to 57 percent, and math proficiency to 56 percent, by 2024.
The question is, how does the state plan to achieve that?
The state is promoting inclusion as a way of bridging the achievement gap, but it falls upon school leaders and educators to try out various approaches.
“It is up to each school to try a model that fits,” DOE spokeswoman Lindsay Chambers said.
But educators say simply putting special education students into a traditional classroom with teachers who aren’t properly trained is problematic.
Justin Hughey, a special education teacher at King Kamehameha III Elementary, and vice president of the Hawaii State Teachers Union, wrote in public testimony to BOE that the department’s strategic goal to raise the inclusion rate was “more of a compliance goal.”
“Just putting more students in the general education classroom won’t produce academic gains, it actually could have the opposite effect,” he said. “If special education students are feeling overwhelmed with the general education curriculum, they tend to shut down or behavior issues tend to accumulate.”
That’s why one approach that has caught on with more schools in recent years — co-teaching — is being embraced by parents and advocates alike. In such a model, a class is led by one teacher specializing in a core content area and a special education teacher.
Together, they come up with a lesson plan.
“I like the co-teaching model because it really plays to the expertise of both teachers,” said Kaahanui. “General education is your content, and the special ed teacher is the (one working on), how do you modify instruction, how to accommodate kids with special instruction?”
Kailua Intermediate, where 105 out of 758 students are in special education, began using the co-teaching model last school year.
The positive effects have been noticeable, including fewer suspensions and summer school referrals, according to school principal Lisa DeLong.
In the old model, special education students at Kailua Intermediate were integrated in regular classrooms led by a four-person team teaching the four content areas of English, math, social studies and science. Special education teachers on a five-person team would attend these core classes once a day, helping out with all subjects.
But Nicole Shirk, a special education teacher, said that system left her “stretched really thin” and unable to help general education teachers with things like student development.
Shirk, a former Teach For America instructor now employed by the DOE, said co-teaching allows for the kind of fluid teaching with minimal interruption.
“Any sort of behavioral problem, we can nip in the bud right away,” she said. “With the two of us, one person can take a student out in the hall, or for a conference. It allows our class to be managed properly from bell to bell. We never have to give up any instructional minutes for behavioral problems.”
Pearl Ridge Elementary has also adopted a co-teaching approach as of the 2015-16 school year.
School leaders at the Aiea school say the co-teaching model has been embraced by teachers due to the amount of time set aside for them to plan out lessons and share data with the group.
Teachers meet weekly for up to two and a half hours, while students take classes like music, Hawaiian studies or physical education.
“It’s during this collaboration time that the special education teacher can work with the general education teacher in terms of looking at the curriculum and planning out lessons for the week,” said principal Blaine Takeguchi.
With the exception of a handful of high-needs special education students placed in their own rooms, the school has moved toward a 100 percent inclusion rate. There’s an additional plus: The school has a very small percentage of teacher turnover.
“They come and they stay,” said Corri Ferreira, the school’s curriculum coordinator. “The expectation is, you come to our school, you’re an inclusion teacher. You don’t apply to our school unless you know that’s what you’re expected to do.”
While test results among special education students aren’t yet as high as he’d like, Takeguchi said the achievement gap between special ed students and other students shrank last year.
That kind of buy-in at Pearl Ridge Elementary from administrators is what educators say is necessary for inclusion models to catch on.
Billie Jo Naleieha, the special education department chair at Kailua Intermediate, said she was initially skeptical of co-teaching because of limited training in prior settings.
However, Kailua Intermediate offered her and several other teachers the opportunity to get trained by co-teaching specialists in Chicago. This experience led her to be “super opened to truly what (co-teaching) should look like.”
“Your partnership is like a marriage,” Naleieha described. “You both have to be on the same page in every aspect. We both share the responsibility. The students felt comfortable with both of us. It is a we, instead of a me or an I. It’s a safe space to learn.”
The co-teaching model tracks across all grade levels. Shannon Kaaa, a pre-K special education inclusion teacher at Fern Elementary, co-teaches 20 preschool children ages three to five. Six of those children are in special education, with conditions that range from being medical fragile to having developmental delays.
“It’s important not just to look at where the special education students are (physically), but who’s providing them the supports that they need,” said Kaaa, who said she and her co-teacher also have the assistance of educational aides.
They sit down twice a week — once on Tuesday, to talk about the class and review the calendar, and again on Thursday, to do the lesson planning for the following week and decide who’s going to do what.
But the teacher said early intervention that comes with co-teaching pays off.
“A lot of my kids come in non-verbal. Almost half of them don’t need special education services by the time they get to kindergarten,” she noted. “That early intervention is successful enough.”