Portland special education students ill-served, state figures say – OregonLive.com

generaled.jpg Portland special education students ill-served, state figures sayLeaders of Portland Public Schools say they are striving to educate more special education students in mainstream academic classes like this English course at Roosevelt High. State metrics suggest Portland lags far behind other districts at educating students with disabilities.

Oregon’s largest school district, Portland Public Schools, appears far inferior to other large metro-area districts at educating students with disabilities.

Portland’s special education students are the least likely to earn diplomas, least likely to be given solid post-high-school goals and most likely to be completely isolated from non-disabled peers, according to new figures from the state.

Portland’s special education director, Mary Pearson, says that portrait stems largely from flawed statistics and from problems the district has already fixed.

The fact that only 32 percent of Portland’s special education students in the class of 2010 earned regular diplomas within five years of starting high school is a genuine problem, she said, and a top priority to change.

Some others earned modified diplomas, certificates of attendance or GEDs rather than simply dropping out, but those are not credentials that the district aims for any but the most seriously disabled students to receive, she said. “Most of our students are capable of earning a regular diploma.”

special ed chart.jpg

Among medium and large metro-area districts, only Sherwood met the state’s target of getting 72 percent of special education students to earn a regular diploma within five years of starting high school. Beaverton was next, at 64 percent.

None was as far off the mark as Portland.

Portland’s class of 2011 had 521 students on special education plans – and virtually as many dropped out as earned regular diplomas. By contrast, 82 percent of Portland students without a disability earned a diploma within five years.

Among special education students, 36 percent earned a regular diploma; 19 percent earned a modified diploma; 10 percent enrolled for a sixth year of high school; and 35 percent dropped out.

“That is clearly not where we want it to be,” Pearson said.

Other developments, however, including more pro-active work to prevent students’ moderate behavior problems from escalating and a growing track record of educating students with disabilities in mainstream academic classes, have left her optimistic that results will improve, she said.

It looks alarming that Portland placed nearly 5 percent of its special education students into highly restricted settings, when the state says no more than 2 percent should be and no other large metro district puts more than 1.8 percent in them, she said. But nearly half of those placements were coded wrong and will be corrected for next year’s report, she said.

Similarly, it looks terrible for Portland that only 17 percent of special ed students age 16 and older were being helped to reach appropriate up-to-date, measurable goals for their transition to post-high-school life, she said.

The standards for post-high-school goals were raised within the past few years, and Portland set a high bar for judging whether students’ individualized education plans meet the new standards, Pearson said. She said she doubts that only 17 percent of plans sampled during 2011-12 met the standard and added that the percentage has increased to 63 percent this school year.

Like the vast majority of other large metro districts, Portland exceeds the state’s goal of having at least 70 percent of special education students spend 80 percent of their day or more in regular classes with on-disabled peers.

Pearson said that gives her a sense of optimism, as she sees more general education teachers, counselors and principals accepting that it is their responsibility to help students thrive in regular schools and classrooms.

“It’s been a paradigm shift. Where people might have thought at one point, ‘This student needs to go somewhere else because I don’t have the tools to support them,’ now it’s ‘How can I get the tools to support this student?'”

Enrollment at Pioneer School, a separate special-education-only school that primarily serves students with severe emotional and behavior problems, has dropped as a result, she said. In 2008-09, Pioneer had 220 students in kindergarten through 12th grade; now it has about 140.

Tigard.JPG Tigard High and all other Tigard-Tualatin schools offer special designed highly structured courses to help students who are behind in reading, math or writing, often because of a learning disability, to catch up to grade level, even though that means being segregated from grade-level peer for that period.

Some “students are not getting to the point where they would need Pioneer, because their problems are addressed earlier on,” Pearson said.

Despite Tigard-Tualatin’s strong record overall, only 52 percent of the district’s special education students spend 80 percent of their day or more in general education classes, the state report says.

Tricia Clair, director of special services, said the district has developed highly effective, specially designed reading, math and writing classes for students who lag significantly below grade level in any of those subjects. Those classes, which are smaller and more structured than regular classes and typically taught by special education teachers, take place at the same time as the regular reading, math or writing class and mainly serve students on individualized special education plans.

Those classes take up 25 percent of many special education students’ days until they catch up nearly to grade level, she said. The district is sticking with that approach — with the state’s blessing — because the classes have proven to help students advance much more quickly, Clair said.

— Betsy Hammond

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