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Reach 2020 would shift resources to integrate students

Photo Credit: COURTESY ANGELA JARVIS-HOLLAND - Daniel Jarvis-Holland, now 15 and at Benson High School, has been integrated into Portland Public Schools general education classrooms, but his mother says it has been an uphill battle. New reforms presented in Reach 2020 aim to dissolve the line between general and special education, adopting instead a 'co-teaching' model. The Portland Public Schools system is heading for a massive shift in how it handles education for children with disabilities.

“There’s a paradigm shift happening across the nation,” Special Education Director Mary Pearson told board members at a Tuesday, Jan. 6, meeting, “and what we’re attempting to do with our vision and our strategic framework is to make that a reality in PPS.”

Pearson’s six-year plan, Reach 2020, calls for the line between special education and general education to disappear. Specialists, like those in speech, occupational, behavioral and physical therapies, would bring their expertise and activities to the entire classroom, co-teaching with general education teachers.

“So far I’ve seen a lot of benefits of co-teaching,” says speech-language pathologist Katie Lee, who began the new philosophy this school year at Irvington School. “Inclusion of all students in a classroom community can improve social outcomes for both typical students and those with disabilities.”

But Lee also acknowledged the paradigm shift required. “Some teachers aren’t yet ready to give up their autonomy and allow another adult to come in,” she says.

That could be a major hurdle. School psychologist Annette Kloeppel of Kelly Elementary and Vernon schools says she has seen the comprehensive model work before, but it took total dedication.

“It takes all players involved,” she says. “Without complete buy-in, efforts to fully support and include children will fail.”

A broad spectrum

One in seven students is part of the PPS special education system, which serves students from birth to age 21 experiencing a wide depth and breadth of physical, psychological and intellectual disabilities.

Angela Jarvis-Holland’s younger son is one of those 6,900 students. Daniel, now 15 and integrated at Benson High School, has Down syndrome.

“It’s a lot of hard advocacy to truly access an inclusive experience for your kid,” said Jarvis-Holland, who is executive director of the Northwest Down Syndrome Association and co-founder of the All Born (In) conference on integrating those with disabilities into mainstream society.

Jarvis-Holland says that for the past three decades, while schools across the nation have integrated, PPS has largely kept students with disabilities separate from the general population.

The results, agree school district officials and parent advocates, have been dismal.

With a budget of $69.5 million, the PPS Special Education Department figures are well below their goals. Just 53 percent of third-graders with disabilities met Early Learning Assessment standards, while the state is hoping for more like 69 percent.

Four- and five-year graduation rates are about half the state targets.

“We can no longer continue to do what has not worked in the past,” Pearson told the school board, noting that just 3.6 percent of special education students have an intellectual disability. “So what we’re saying is all students — when given the correct accommodations and support in a general education setting — can be successful.”

There is, Pearson says, “an absolute need” to change the way the district serves special education students.

Where theory meets reality

But, much like the children it aims to serve, Reach 2020 has a variety of barriers to overcome.

“There’s a long history of our kids getting served in segregated placements, so there’s a long history of resources being allocated a certain way,” Jarvis-Holland says.

Portland Association of Teachers Vice President Suzanne Cohen says PPS has tried to integrate twice in her 12-year career without much success.

“I think that when you listen to the presentation, there’s a lot in there that sounds great. But there is a disconnect with what is happening in our schools,” Cohen says.

Cohen says teachers are busy and overtaxed and she worries that the district will not provide enough supports when a student with special needs integrates into a general education classroom.

“They are missing the boat of what it means to be a general education teacher.”

The union vice president says she is hearing from kindergarten teachers in particular who, in this year’s pilot programs, have become the guinea pigs for this new philosophy. Faced with overstuffed classes and an increasingly wide range of needs and abilities, Cohen says teachers will need a dramatic shift in resources for this new model to work.

“What we really want is for students to get the services they deserve,” she says. “We can’t do that without resources and without being honest about what is happening (in the classroom).”

Specifics still unclear

School board member Bobbie Regan says she was pleased that the nearly two-hour presentation on Reach 2020 came before the budget process begins in February so that the board can make serious attempts to reallocate resources.

Pearson announced two stakeholder meetings — one at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, and another at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, at 501 N. Dixon St. — where people can come to help shape the proposal. From that, Regan says she is hoping for more details on what money should go where.

“I think that’s what Mary (Pearson) needs to lay out for us,” the school board member says.

Some worry this will be a flash in the pan, as initiatives from past Special Education directors Robert Ford and Michael Remus were. (The department has had eight leaders since 2001.)

Otto Schell, Oregon PTA legislative director, says it will be important to find stable and permanent sources of funding for the changes to also be stable and permanent.

“Lots of us worry about that for a lot of different programs,” he says. School reforms tend to “go gangbusters for one season” and then funding dries up.

Regan says this will be a top concern for her when she visits Washington, D.C., at the end of the month to lobby for additional special education funding. The 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that required schools to offer education to all children in the “least restrictive environment” also called for Congress to fund the new services at 40 percent.

They never have. Regan says, these days, the number is more like 16 percent.

What money can’t buy

Jarvis-Holland says that in her experience with her son’s integration to general education, there is still a prejudice that needs to be acknowledged.

One of Daniel’s teachers is excited about the variety that he brings to her instruction planning, while another seems totally uninterested in accommodating him at all, Jarvis-Holland says.

“If somebody just wants to talk about resources, I would challenge them that it’s not just about resources,” she says. “Part of it is money and part of it really is about attitudes.”

But Jarvis-Holland says she has hope that Portland and the nation have reached a turning point.

“It’s got a moment where it’s becoming a lot more consistent message,” she says, noting new words and actions from U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan and Oregon Deputy Superintendent for Instruction Rob Saxton, along with open ears on the PPS board and at the Oregon PTA. “I’m feeling that there’s more genuine attempts to partner.”

Now, she says, she’s waiting for the teachers: “I need Gen Ed people to say, ‘It’s time, we need to do this, and we all need to make this happen.’”


Portland Public Schools board member Bobbie Regan says the board’s work on racial equity and cultural competency provided the window for the special education reforms in Reach 2020.

“We did some foundational work for departments to step up and say: ‘OK, it’s time for us to do things differently,’” Regan says

Special Education Senior Director Mary Pearson, who rose from the ranks in 2012, acknowledged that the status quo is pretty bad.

• Black students with disabilities are five times more likely to be excluded from school for more than 10 days in a school year.

• Seventy-one percent of referrals to special education evaluation teams are students of color.

• While black students are 10.7 percent of the overall PPS population, they make up 25 percent of “behavior” classrooms.

Portland Association of Teachers Vice President Suzanne Cohen agrees that there is a problem.

“Clearly we are over-identifying students of color. But what we are saying is that there are students who have needs,” Cohen says, explaining that the special education umbrella has historically been the only way to get help for kids who need extra time and attention. “Maybe we don’t need that label, but maybe we need those services.”

By Shasta Kearns Moore
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