Special ed services still ‘grave’ in HISD, committee finds
Houston ISD’s quality of special education services remains in “grave” shape due to inadequate staffing, confusion among employees and a lack of accountability, according to a district-appointed committee reviewing the quality of programs provided to students with disabilities.
In a draft report expected to be presented to HISD trustees Thursday, members of the district’s Special Education Ad-Hoc Committee said the district needs to better address its many shortcomings and school board members should provide more oversight of efforts to improve delivery of special education services. The committee, comprised of district leaders, special education experts and HISD parents, has been meeting since February 2017, in response to a Houston Chronicle investigation that found a years-long pattern of Texas school districts — including HISD — denying access to special education services.
The committee’s 11-page draft report, which is expected to undergo some revisions before Thursday, echoes many of the findings documented earlier this year in a third-party review by American Institutes of Research. The nonprofit found HISD needed more staff members dedicated to special education, better clarity about delivering services to students and clearer systems for carrying out essential programs for students with disabilities, among other areas of improvement.
The committee is expected to issue several recommendations to HISD’s nine-member school board. They include ordering HISD administrators to issue a detailed response to the American Institutes of Research report and mandating regular reports to trustees about the district’s plans for improving special education services.
RELATED: Read ‘Denied,’ the Houston Chronicle investigation into special education in Texas.
“It’s going to take years of persistence and commitment to special education to get the district to where we want it to be,” said HISD Trustee Anne Sung, who chaired the committee.
HISD’s administration did not grant an interview request regarding the committee’s draft report. In the past year, HISD administrators have reorganized the district’s special education department and crafted a three-year strategic plan for improving services. HISD trustees also allocated an additional $13.5 million in the district’s 2018-19 budget for special education and dyslexia programs.
Kara DeRocha, an HISD parent and special education advocate who sat on the committee, said district leaders need a consistent, detailed and well-managed plan to satisfy long-frustrated families.
“The biggest problem in HISD has always been follow-through,” DeRocha said. “There are a lot of great plans that come out, but the devil is in the details and making sure they do what they said they’d do with fidelity.”
Houston ISD trustees appointed the ad-hoc committee amid a statewide reckoning over special education in Texas schools. In 2016, the Chronicle detailed how Texas education officials effectively had capped the percentage of students who should receive special education services at 8.5 percent. The national average was about 12 to 13 percent, with a few large, urban school district exceeding 20 percent.
The move resulted in thousands of children with disabilities — including those with autism, dyslexia and mental illnesses — being denied essential services.
Federal investigators confirmed in January that the arbitrary 8.5-percent target led school districts to delay or deny special education services to students who qualified for them. Texas Education Agency officials have said the state needs to spend an additional $3.2 billion on special education in the next three years to meet national standards. State officials said school districts likely will need to hire thousands of new special education teachers in the next few years, which could prove challenging, given nationwide educator shortages.
The Chronicle reported in December 2016 that HISD embraced the state’s de-facto cap, slashed hundreds of jobs centered on special education and implemented tactics designed to dissuade evaluators from diagnosing students with disabilities. About 7.3 percent of HISD students received special education services in 2015-16.
RELATED: Special education still lagging in Houston ISD, audit finds
District officials have denied enforcing the de-facto cap, and neither American Institutes of Research nor the ad-hoc committee found the district imposed an arbitrary limit on students receiving special education services. Still, both groups found widespread problems within HISD’s special education programs, mostly tied to inadequate staffing and poor administration.
Over 17 meetings, members of the ad-hoc committee met routinely with stakeholders in HISD special education and reviewed extensive data about services provided to students. Committee members were charged with issuing recommendations for improvement to HISD’s school board, but not the district’s administration.
HISD Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca, who sat on the committee, said members heard “experiences that are real and painful.”
“Now, it’s our job as trustees to continue with the oversight piece, and to do so in a way that will help our students ultimately get the services they deserve,” Flynn Vilaseca said.
HISD trustees could begin discussions about their role as soon as Thursday.
At the committee’s final meeting last week, members voiced optimism about their findings and recommendations, but cautioned that district administrators must carry out necessary improvements.
Hannah Harvey, who moved from principal of Law Elementary School to HISD’s director of interventions this summer, said campus leaders must be held more responsible for ensuring delivery of special education services.
“If they are not invested in this piece and they don’t understand the processes, then we can put all this in policy and handbooks, but they won’t follow it,” Harvey said.