Something is Well and Truly Screwed Up in Special Education

I want to fill in some details about the Curriculum and Instruction Policy Committee meeting on Monday. Three members of the Special Education staff, including the chief of that department, Ms McWilliams, presented the Board with the program placements for Special Ed for 2014-2015. At that time they described the status of the implementation of the new Special Education system. Their presentation and conversation was almost impossible to follow. It was filled with meaningless jargon and self contradictions. For example, they would say that there are no more Special Education programs anymore, and then, in the same breath, talk about Special Education programs. Then, in the next breath, they would say how important it is to use the right words for things. In fact, for all of their talk about creating systemic change in Special Education, the only examples of change that they gave were changes to the names of the programs, because words are so important, and there are no programs any more, and here are the new names and sites for those programs. It made my head spin - I'm glad it didn't explode.

In this confusing swirl it didn't dawn on me until just now that they have determined the program placements in April. Aren't those decisions supposed to be made before Open Enrollment? Yes, they are. Aren't they important facts that BLTs should have when setting a school budget? Yes, they are. Aren't they critical bits of information necessary when trying to create a master schedule? Yes again. No one bothered to mention or ask about that during the Committee meeting. These decisions are a bit late and they are going to create chaos.

I'll tell what was asked at the meeting. The Board Directors directly asked Ms McWilliams and her colleagues about community engagement. They were told that the community - both the Advisory Committe and the Special Education PTA - were completely informed and onboard with the plan and that they were, in fact, active participants in it. Funny thing: it turns out this was a total lie.

When will people learn that it's not the crime but the cover-up that gets you in trouble? Ms McWilliams would have been okay if she had acknowledged her tense relationship with the community and their lack of involvement or agreement. Looking the Board members square in the eye and lying to them, however, is going to have consequences.

I didn't mention it in my original post, but Lesley Rogers, the head of communications, was at the meeting. She was there with Mr. Tolley to help describe how they would spin the deletion of the GPA requirement from the high school graduation requirements. It got torn up in the press last time it came before the Board so they are going to be more intentional in their communications about it this time.

Her presence at the meeting reminded me of the recent job posting for an internal communications specialist. I bet that she was feeling confirmed in her decision to create that job when the principals of the Creative Approach Schools told the Board that no one in the JSCEE knew what a Creative Approach School was. She will probably feel that validation again when she finds out that none of the principals who are getting a Special Education service delivery model know anything about it.

One of few clear pieces of information that came out of the swirl of jargon and contradiction presented by Special Education at the meeting was the fact that all comprehensive middle schools would be using the "Access" service delivery model - the one in which students with disabilities will spend over 50% of the school day in general education classrooms with support. Turns out that the principals didn't know that. Maybe the internal communications specialist can delivery that news.

Look, Special Education is governed by a federal law, IDEA, and they are always complicated and lawyerly. Plus it has this whole basket of jargon that comes with it (IEP, LRE, and much, much more) and there's all these rules layered on top of the law. That without even including 504s. I'm not even sure if 504s are part of Special Education or not. If you are not personally involved in it - hands on - Special Education is hard to understand. So I'm not going to pretend that I know or understand all of the different ways that Seattle Public Schools is screwing it up, but I know enough to know that they are screwing it up.

The achievement gap and the disproportionate discipline would tell me that even if I didn't have community members telling me. The strong hand of enforcement by the OSPI is another big clue. How bad do you have to mess things up for the OSPI, the laziest cop in the world, to step forward and try to enforce the law?

I can also say that I am completely confident that Ms McWilliams is intentionally misleading the Board about her community, and I'm equally confident in saying that won't fly in Seattle. I'm not sure where that kind of crap does work given this age of blogs and email. You can't tell one story in one room and a completely different story in another room and expect that the two audiences won't each hear about what you told the other one. That's just childish.

So -  a friendly warning to Ms McWilliams: be straight with the Board about your relationship with the community and your community engagement. And a friendly hint to the Board: get independent corroboration about Ms McWilliams' claims about community engagement.


Anonymous said…
Thank you for writing this post. As a special education parent, I could not agree with you more.

-SpecialEd Parent
mirmac1 said…
As an active parent in Sped issues, I can affirm that the relationship between SPS and parent advocacy groups is testy. We know when we've been strung along, appeased, insulted, mollified yadda yadda.

I've been tempted to just throw in the towel. But what is the alternative? I don't want to contemplate it.

The Board hears from enough of us to know that something's rotten in Denmark. The big question is how to fix it. Relentless pressure predicated on the law.
Anonymous said…

I trust you, and your integrity. But, "lie" is a very, very strong word. I am hoping that it may have appeared that way to you and some others, but, there is an alternative explanation.


"Looking the Board members square in the eye and lying to them, however, is going to have consequences."


Well, one would hope. But...

Nah. Never does. Really. That's just my take on it.

Thanks for being a tireless reporter. It is a critical role, and likely a thankless one too. You deserve much credit. Thank you.

-Spectrum Dad
Spectrum Dad, I did not write this piece; Charlie did. If he believes it was a lie that Ms. McWilliams told, I would assume he can back it up because, yes, that's a big word.
speducator said…
Is there a link or some kind of documentation about the "Access" Service Delivery Model? It would be difficult for me to imagine the medically fragile students attending general education classes for 50% of their day.
Charlie Mas said…
@speducator, not all students with disabilities are judged suitable for the "Access" service delivery model. There are other service delivery models in addition to "Access". They are resource room, "Behavior", "Contained", and "Distinct".

One of the ways that the District is screwing up, by the way, is by making the school assignment decision outside the IEP process. Apparently that one of the requirements of the federal law that governs special education. Instead of making that decision collaboratively with the students' families in the IEP, they are making that decision at the District level. You know, by people who don't know the students and without any collaboration with the students' families.
Charlie Mas said…
Here is a document about the service delivery models.
Joe Wolf said…
Charlie: Sitting here at home with my work-to-do-tonight paperwork in front of me, I have a spreadsheet that shows how many and what kind of new SpEd classes are being placed at schools for 2014-15. I have been working with both school site leadership and SpEd leadership using this data, to place space at schools for the roll-out of the new SpEd delivery model. Not once has a school been surprised when I've contacted them on this matter.

So at least for the "schools don't know" point ... well, that's not true.
mirmac1 said…
On the whole I would say that this administration has at least made some positive changes. They perhaps did not collaborate with parents nor provide consistent information, but they have done more than the last ten years combined. Serious. Some of that may be OSPI, or leadership change, or a new board - it's not any one thing. But I do know that there are some people at JSCEE who are more committed to students than to their next promotion. That's a breath of fresh air.

Would I like there to be more productive engagement and collaborative problem-solving? Yes. Should more students and families be helped and fewer hurt? Absolutely. As I told the board, SPS SpEd has taken two steps forward for every step back. Parents will not reduce the pressure, but at the same time I don't think we gain anything by failing to recognize positive gains.

Do you know that tonight's work session is the first time I didn't hear the undertones of DeBell's sneering insinuation that SpEd students just cost too dam much. That was quite the treat.
Anonymous said…
Joe, thank you for your work.

Just to let readers know, parents have been having a really tough time trying to find out the reality of what services where for 2014-2015. Anyone who has attended Special Education PTSA meeting or a meeting of the Supt's Advisory Council for SPED (does he know he has one???) will attest to the difficulties families are experiencing as to what services will ACTUALLY be located where. At the last PTSA meeting parents were told of a whole new secondary transition program for 2014-2015. The district then claimed that this was not going to happen.

Unknown said…

I am the current president of the Special Ed PTSA. I have attended every SEAAC meeting this year. I have also attended every Special Education Task Force meeting this year save one.

Ms. McWilliams has attended most of the Special Ed PTSA meetings, most if not all of SEAAC meetings and at least half of the Task force meetings.

I can't say that there is any more or any less family engagement than in previous years. I would say that the two biggest mistakes this year have been the failure to take heed of and adequately address "RISER" issues until it was too late as well as the recent announcement of a secondary transition "hub" model (that was inadvertently announced by two SpEd Supervisors and then labeled a mistake by Ms. McWilliams in short order.) Generally, this year has been marked by very poor communication.

Ms. McWilliams is new, relatively inexperienced, and had the pleasure of dealing with a Level 4 determination and the production of the Comprehensive Corrective Action Plan, the first version of which was badly bungled by her predecessor.

Underlying all these issues is the fact that she has been hamstrung by a number of factors, including lack of Gen Ed support, lack of reporting and communication infrastructure, historical systemic insouciance to federal law, ten years of severe fiscal cuts, and generally a lack of capacity to deal with the sheer magnitude of the task at hand.

It is a Sisyphean task. I know this because I see the other end of it--at times I can not deal with the number of communications from parents (and staff) over issues which would have been better dealt with at the beginning with clearer communication, to say the least.

Ms. McWilliams comes across as a warm and caring person, but she can also be very defensive in a rather alarming way. I have seen this first hand. If she is going to stay in her job, she is going to have to work on this.

It is puzzling to me how you have heard from so many families on this issue when I have not. The issues you are talking about I have heard from a tiny minority. I mostly hear about discipline issues, placement issues and individual IEP issues.

I guess I am particularly concerned about the word "lie." It would be one thing to say the SpEd department is glossing over its deficiencies. That would hardly be newsworthy. I am sincerely hoping that you are representing more than one or two families when you make these accusations.

In short, Charlie, I am a pragmatist. Special Education needs a lot of improvement. If there is going to be improvement, it is better to try to work with what we have.

I have one more thing to say. There will be the opportunity for community engagement on April 23 and 24 in a North End school (possibly Nathan Hale) and Rainier Beach, from 6:30-8:30. This will be an open mic night in front of the external consultants.

Also, more on the "New Model" later or tomorrow.
Anonymous said…
Ms. Griffin,

I have also attended a lot of meetings over the year, including this year. I think Charlie is corerct that the nature of the engagement with families and teachers currently is being rather crassly misrepresented. Maybe "lie" is too strong a word. But maybe it isn't. Then again, maybe it is the culture of these public presentations to the School Board that everybody glosses over reality. In that way, Charlie's comments seem right on.

sped teacher in the trenches
mirmac1 said…
I've attended many meetings over many years. As much as I appreciate your advocacy Charlie, I haven't seen you at any recent SEAAC or SpEd PTSA meetings, nor at meetings with the current administration on SpEd matters. I have seen a handful of teachers attend more than a few of these meetings.

Frankly, the implication that the problems with SpEd are the fault of one person's "lies" does more harm than good and is inaccurate. There are some who would love to manipulate the media and the discourse to achieve a certain end. (LEV/Seattle Times and their use of the serious topic of disproportionate discipline to push their reform agenda comes immediately to mind.) It disgusts me and I won't let them sabotage efforts to make improvements that benefit the most SpEd students.
Charlie Mas said…
I have lived in Seattle for 30 years. In that time I have assimilated into the local culture quite a bit. But not completely. I have not fully adopted the Seattle practices of passive-aggressive behavior, euphemism, and avoiding confrontation at all costs.

The distinction between "glossing over the reality" and "lie" are lost on me. I am not as shocked and offended by the word "lie" as some folks clearly are. I fully expect District officials to lie, and they often do. All I ask is that they tell me an artful lie - one that can't be instantly discovered as false. Those are insulting to my intelligence.

Lie is not, in fact, a strong word. It is a simple, plain word that means to make an intentionally false statement. It happens all the time and there's no point in getting all worked up about it. At least it would be helpful if people got as worked up over the lie as they did over my putting the correct name to it.
Charlie Mas said…
@Joe Wolf, first, thank you for your participation here. It is very welcome and refreshing.

I think it is a question of timing. Who knew about the program placements and when did they know?

There were definitely principals who did not know about them during school tours prior to open enrollment.

Open Enrollment closed on March 7. The document listing the linked schools and program locations was written on March 5. So I don't think that families knew about them in time for any kind of school choice decision.

This may be a direct result of the District's inadequate student information system. I don't think they knew how many students there were or where they live. I think that they are also somewhat callous about school choice for students with disabilities. They seem to reckon that the District will assign these students to align with their program placement decisions, so there's no school choice decision for these families to make. Consequently, they didn't feel any sense of urgency about gathering the data and determining the sites for various service models.

Also - I'm not saying that Special Education isn't much less screwed up than it was. It is. But if someone stabs you with a six inch knife all the way to the hilt, are you supposed to thank them when they pull the knife halfway out? Are you supposed to be grateful for that?
mirmac1 said…
Again Charlie. I'm not sure where you're getting your information but the linked schools program locations were posted on the website February 21st, in advance of open enrollment, with detailed definitions following one week later. The information was embargoed so that principals would be informed before families. Joe is correct.

I recommend you obtain your information from more than one source with an axe to grind.
Anonymous said…
Was this information available so late because they had to decide where everything else goes first so they can squeeze sped programs in wherever they can?

As for placement, here is link to the federal regulation requiring these decisions to be made by a group, including the parents, with knowledge of the placement options:,root,regs,300,B,300%252E116,

IMHO, Tracy Libros and Joe Wolf both do really great work and try hard to give candid information to parents. I wish other district officials would engage with parents the way they do. I certainly don't blame them for any of these issues and hope they stick around.

mirmac1 said…
Though I expect you already know this reader and other posters, "placement" or level of service is different than school choice. What SEAAC has asked for some time is accurate program descriptions (particularly the degree students in those programs have access to the GenEd curriculum) and where they are. Those descriptions would help parents determine what placement is appropriate for their student. We've asked the district to quit claiming all Service Model 4 programs are equal. Thanks to many principals' lack of concern or active resistance to law, programs are molded into what they think does the trick and is the least trouble for them.

This school year saw a greater emphasis on principal retraining on WTH IDEA is and why they must follow it. Half of CCAP wouldn't be needed if they made sure their buildings fully complied.

The other half of CCAP will be largely handled when the last vestiges of SPS' penny-wise, pound foolish approach to staffing and training is eliminated. It was the lack of ESA and PD that led to incompliant IEPs and evaluations. The understaffing has been turning around this year.

Another very positive development is the move to provide inclusion services at all comprehensive secondary schools.

There have been gains. Not everyone gets what they want but we have to keep moving forward to get the students what they need.
Anonymous said…
Mirmac - yes, exactly! How are you suppossed to make program decisions when noone can tell you what the actual programs options are? My youngest child, who has Down syndrome, is going into Kindergarten next year, and I really felt like I was operating in a vacuum trying to do the program placement paperwork for her back in January. I talked to an awful lot of people trying to figure out what would be the best setting. Now, I would have done this anyway, but it would have made my life a lot easier if I had just been able to find an accurate description of the available options on line somewhere, so I wouldn't have wasted time looking into programs that were being discontinued (like transitional kindergarten or SM2 inclusion).

The only info I could find after extensive searching was a page about staffing ratios. What is the difference between SM2 & SM4? Well, one has 9 kids per class, one had 8 kids - that's the only thing I could find in writing on the SPS website. Somehow I suspect there is more to it than that. You basically end up relying on the special education staff at whatever school your kids are attending to tell you what is available, but they don't necessarily know what is going on either, especially when things are changing (I should note that I have been very happy with the preschool staff teaching my daughter, the point is that no one is giving them the latest info either). The info on this website indicates that "ACCESS" means the bulk of the time in a general ed class with support and up to 50% in the resource room - the way it was explained to me was that ACCESS means the child is in a self-contained class and gets to go to music, lunch etc with the general ed kids - which is basically the opposite. There was no information about the existance of the SM1 options. I was really left wondering why there appeared to be nothing between self-contained with 9 kids and general ed with whatever you can talk your reference school into giving you. Frustrating when one wants ones child in a general classroom because she is very socially typical, but one knows that she can't be there without significant support because of her academic needs.

I'm glad this thread was posted, because at least know I know my options better for the 2015-2016 school year. As a note, I'm actually ok with my daughter's placement for next year -she'll be in an SM2 class, and that is for the best as she is both young for grade (summer birthday) as well as delayed, so she really is not developmentally ready to be in kindergarten. However, she will almost certainly repeat kindergarten in 2015-2016, at which point one of the SM1 or ACCESS options (as described here) will most likely be what we want.

Mom of 4
mirmac1 said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
mirmac1 said…
If you are not a member of the SpEd PTSA listserve, I encourage you to sign up. email
Anonymous said…
Mirmac1, your comment at 11:55 is spot on. Hope Ms. McWilliams and all the (get a clue and some IDEA compliance training) ed directors are reading this.


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