Seattle’s special-ed mess: Who’s in charge of what?
Communication failures both within Seattle Public Schools and with parents of children with disabilities continue to undermine the district’s efforts to fix longstanding problems in special education.
Seattle Times education reporter
More than year after the state ordered Seattle Public Schools to fix its long-troubled special-education program, progress has been incremental at best and falls far short of the district’s own promises.
When national consultants visited Seattle during the spring, they found a bureaucracy still so disjointed that few know who is responsible for what.
They heard, for example, four different versions of how the district is supposed to handle parent complaints about special education.
The data systems are such a mess that nobody could tell them how many of the district’s 7,200 special-education students — with disabilities such as autism, deafness and dyslexia — were in school on any given day.
Some staff couldn’t even name the department’s executive director, Zakiyyah McWilliams — not especially surprising, given that she is the eighth person to hold the job in five years.
Now there’s a ninth. McWilliams, after a little over a year on the job, was sent home on paid leave last month and replaced by an interim leader pending a district investigation into the contracting process that brought the consultants to Seattle in the first place.
Seattle risks losing about $12 million annually in federal funds unless it fixes problems that include failures to update student learning plans, deliver services outlined in those plans and provide services consistently from school to school.
While McWilliams and her staff have made some gains in the timeliness and quality of student learning plans and evaluations, they weren’t able to meet the state’s June 30 deadline to have the full improvement plan in place.
The state has given Seattle another year to fix those basic problems.
Parents want more than basic competence, however. They want more attention paid to boosting academics, raising graduation rates and improving the chances that their children can live independently once they leave school.
Also wanting more is the U.S. Department of Education, which announced in June that it will now judge special-education programs on educational results as well as procedural compliance.
And poor communication — within the district and with parents, especially those who don’t speak English — continues to undermine Seattle’s efforts.
Communication is one of four main problems identified by the consultants — the TIERS Group from Louisiana State University — along with frequent leadership turnover, chaotic internal organization and insufficient training for principals and teachers.
Nobody says that fixing communication alone will solve the deeper problems, but unless Seattle finds a way to get everyone on the same page, it’s unlikely to make progress on any of its goals.
McWilliams took over the department in May 2013 and almost immediately was thrust into survival mode.
She lost some key staff at the beginning of the school year, and it took until October for the district to get an improvement plan approved by the state.
And it wasn’t until April 2014 that the district hired a national consultant, which the state required as part of the improvement plan.
In the meantime, communication with the district’s 95 school buildings suffered.
The vice president of Seattle’s teachers union — a special-education teacher before she moved to that job — routinely fielded calls last school year from principals and other administrators who hoped she had the answers to questions they couldn’t get answered at the district’s central office.
While Seattle made some progress on basic compliance, other parts of the improvement plan got postponed, such as the hiring of a parent liaison.
Meanwhile, parents turned up the heat at the state level, filing more complaints so far in 2014 than they had for the entire year before.
“They’ve been enveloped by a bit of a siege mentality in Seattle,” said the state’s special-education director, Doug Gill. “When you don’t have a system in place, everything you do is sort of case-by-case basis, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed ...”
Even when the district does something well, it has a hard time communicating it.
Caitlin Roulston has a son in the developmental preschool at Dunlap Elementary School, where she says he’s receiving excellent services. But she had a hard time getting him signed up for it, waiting three weeks to get a phone call returned.
“You’ve got to work to pull information out, instead of having that information actively pushed to you,” she said.
Stacy Gillett, a former special-education teacher who directs the governor’s education ombudsman’s office, also noticed an uptick in complaints, which take longer to resolve in Seattle than in other districts.
“It’s still hard for us to navigate and figure out who to talk to, to solve the problem,” Gillett said. “You can imagine how hard it is for families, especially those families for whom English may not be their first language.”
In Seattle, the group that suffers most from the lack of communication is the more than 1,000 students who need both special-education services and help learning English.
They speak almost four dozen languages among them, and Seattle, like many area school districts, doesn’t have enough interpreters to meet the need.
Sometimes families must rely on an English-speaking relative, or a member of their ethnic community, or on the children themselves to interpret important information, often relayed in jargon that is difficult for even native English speakers to understand.
Ginger Kwan, executive director of a nonprofit group that helps some of those parents, says families are signing Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) without understanding what they mean.
The documents — which are at the heart of the federal law that guarantees every student with an eligible disability a free and appropriate public education — are supposed to specify measurable goals and the services the district will provide to help children achieve them.
“Families are often going to IEP meetings without any understanding of what the IEPs are about,” Kwan, executive director of Open Doors for Multicultural Families, said at a meeting last spring.
“We have seen parents whose children’s IEP for three years have never been updated. For three years! How could that happen to them? Because they don’t understand the language.”
One of those students, 18-year-old Rahma Ali, wasn’t getting the vision therapy or tutoring the district had promised, and her math goals hadn’t changed for years. Her mother, relying on her adult son to translate, didn’t realize that.
Open Doors persuaded the district to revise the learning plan and encouraged Ali, who is Somali, to advocate for herself to make sure it was followed, which helped Ali graduate this year.
Open Doors is working with the Auburn, Highline, Federal Way and Kent school districts, helping to provide training and workshops for families, with multiple interpreters on hand to demystify special education.
Kwan said she offered the same kind of partnership to Seattle last year but she couldn’t get the district to make the commitment.
Before she was put on leave, McWilliams said she wanted to pursue a partnership with Open Doors and generally improve communication with district staff and parents.
But that was before she was sidelined, replaced with a new leader facing the same old problems.