Hawaii DOE wants more special education students in general education classrooms, but staffing and limited resources make implementation a challenge.

Prior to the sixth grade, Ikaika Kaahanui had never taken math or reading classes with most of his classmates. Kaahanui, who is deaf, spent most of elementary school in a different classroom, receiving modified lessons alongside other special education students.

That all changed when a math teacher questioned why Kaahanui wasn’t in her general education class. She welcomed him into her classroom, sometimes making modifications to his homework assignments and lessons to support his learning needs, recalled Amanda Kaahanui, Ikaika’s mom. 

“She believed in him,” Amanda Kaahanui said. 

By the time her son was entering middle school, Amanda Kaahanui was determined that he continue to learn alongside his general education peers. And he did, making the honor roll for the first time at Kailua Intermediate School and graduating last year with honors from Kalaheo High’s career and technical education program.

Ikaika Kaahanui and his mother, Amanda Kaahanui, are photographed at Kapunahala Elementary. Ikaika Kaahanui attended his first inclusion class in sixth grade. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

He’s now taking classes at Windward Community College – and Amanda Kaahanui credits much of his academic success to his sixth-grade teacher’s efforts to include him in her class. 

The federal Department of Education calculates inclusion rates based on the percentage of special education students who attend general education classes for at least 80% of the school day. Schools’ rates of special education student inclusion still vary widely across Hawaii, and while there are ongoing efforts to address that, teachers question if inclusion can be effectively implemented in their classrooms with the resources available. 

In 2017, Hawaii had one of the lowest inclusion rates in the nation. “Our data didn’t look very good,” said Annie Kalama, assistant superintendent of the office of student support services. 

That year, the state DOE began working with Stetson & Associates, an educational consulting firm, to offer professional development for 50 schools, training teachers and complex area leaders on inclusive practices. 

The state’s inclusion rates have since risen from 41% in the 2017-18 school year to 53% last year. By the 2024-25 school year, DOE hopes to hit an inclusion rate of 61%, Kalama said. But even with this improvement, Hawaii would still fall behind the 2021 national inclusion rate of 67%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Inclusion isn’t just a practice – it’s also a civil right, said Frances Stetson, president and CEO of Stetson & Associates. Federal law requires that special education students learn in the “least restrictive environment,” and, for many, this means learning alongside their general education peers and accessing the same grade-level content, Stetson said. 

To be inclusive teachers may need to offer extra resources or accommodations to special education students, Stetson said. In other cases, special education students may still attend outside classes that offer specialized instruction but schools should accommodate those students in general settings as much as possible, she said. 

“It’s more healthy and more appropriate to think of all children as general education students,” Stetson said. “It's just that some need additional support and services.” 

When done well, inclusion practices can benefit both special education and general education students, said Lyndsey Conradi, an assistant professor in the University of Hawaii’s Department of Special Education. Special education students tend to have higher levels of social engagement and academic achievement in inclusion settings, and their peers develop a greater understanding and acceptance of them, Conradi added.    

While DOE’s partnership with Stetson & Associates ended in 2019, complex area leaders have continued to train teachers in inclusive practices, said educational specialist Krysta Salon. 

“We’re expecting all schools to comply with the law,” Salon said. 

Justin Hughey left his teaching job in Lahaina and is photographed Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, in Wailuku. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Justin Hughey, who has dyslexia, said he became a special education teacher at Kahului Elementary to help students like himself. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

'We Don't Have The Bodies Or The Money'

Justin Hughey, a special education teacher at Kahului Elementary, understands the value of inclusion but also says it’s not for everyone. Hughey, who has dyslexia, said he needed to learn in a small, quiet setting growing up, where he could sound out words and read at his own pace. 

“For some students, and for myself, it made no sense to be in the general education setting and just listen to the grade-level content,” Hughey said. “Everyone knows that you're not going to answer questions or you're not doing your work, and you feel ostracized.” 

Hughey became a special education teacher to help students like himself but as the DOE aims to raise its inclusion rates, it’s special education students and teachers who can suffer the most, he said. Teachers sometimes feel pressured into placing special education students into inclusion settings, he added, even when these students may be better suited for separate classes that can allow them to learn at their own pace and receive more individualized support. 

It's also challenging for schools to implement inclusive practices when there’s no common understanding of inclusion, said Andrea Eshelman, deputy executive director and chief negotiator of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. Teachers and administrators don’t always know what inclusion entails, or what it could look like in their classrooms, so inclusion rates and initiatives end up varying from school to school, she added. 

“I think people are trying hard and working really hard to be inclusive,” Eshelman said. “But the models that are out there and what people are doing are all over the map.” 

On Hawaii island, Abby Arnott said she would be interested in learning more about inclusive practices, but she’s already stretched thin as one of two special education teachers at Holualoa Elementary. 

One method of inclusion involves co-teaching, where a general education and special education teacher serve students together in the same classroom. But, Arnott said, if she began co-teaching for one grade level, her fellow teacher would be left servicing special education students across five other grades. 

“I love the idea of inclusion,” Arnott said. “The reality is that we don’t have the bodies and the money to pay for that.”

Not all inclusion initiatives require more staffing, Stetson said. Sometimes, special education students just need additional instruction or accommodations from a general education teacher or classroom aide, she added. 

BOE Board of Education and the Department of Human Services among other offices are housed in the Queen Liliuokalani Building.
The Board of Education voted to approve pay differentials for special education teachers in 2019. The pay raises took effect in 2020. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

But Hawaii has struggled with a shortage of special education teachers for decades, which ultimately impacts the quality of instruction, Eshelman said. 

In 2020, the state introduced a $10,000 pay differential for special education teachers in order to entice more educators into the field. According to DOE data, 3% of special education teacher positions are currently vacant, compared to 7% in the 2018-19 school year.

While staffing might affect schools’ inclusion initiatives, general and special education teachers also need adequate time, training and resources to collaborate with one another and introduce new practices in their classrooms, Conradi said.

It’s only when schools offer these supports that teachers can look beyond classroom placements and start focusing on inclusion that provides meaningful learning opportunities to all, she added. 

“It’s always important to remember that special education isn’t a place, it’s a service,” Conradi said. 

Civil Beat's education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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