Improving special education: Denver task force suggests more screening, less segregation

Only about 6,700 of the nearly 10,300 Denver students who received special education services last year were included in their regular classrooms at least 80 percent of the time. That’s despite research that shows inclusion benefits both students with and without disabilities.

A recommendation from a Denver Public Schools task force of parents, educators, and advocates for people with disabilities aims to increase that number. It calls on Denver’s 213 schools to first offer educational programming to students with disabilities in the regular classroom, instead of placing them in separate programs segregated from the rest of the school.

That recommendation is one of five that the task force presented Monday to the Denver school board, which sets policy for the district. Task force members hope their input drives improvements in the diverse district, where very few black and Latino students with disabilities are reading or doing math at grade level. In addition to poor academic outcomes, a state investigation last year found the district was violating some students’ rights.

“I think that our recommendations will truly save the lives of kids,” said task force member Tayo McGuirk, a parent of two children with special needs who is also a former Denver teacher.

“As a parent, I’ve watched my own kids struggle for eight years. And that little hop they had in their step when they were a kindergartener, it’s gone. They walk with slumped shoulders, and defeat, and feelings of isolation. And as a teacher and as a parent, I have committed to never letting that happen for any kid.”

Special education in Denver started coming under intense public scrutiny last winter, when officials cut the number of staff members who help principals serve students with disabilities. The $4 million savings was used in part to bolster mental health services for all students.

District officials said the change wouldn’t hurt special education. They explained the cuts were part of a reorganization to hone in on improving academic instruction for students with disabilities. Achievement was lowest for students of color; fewer than 3 percent of black and Latino students with disabilities met expectations on state tests in 2017, compared with nearly 17 percent of white students with disabilities. (Those percentages rose slightly in 2018.)

But parents of students with disabilities pushed back against what they perceived as cuts to services. In May, the school board passed a resolution spelling out high expectations for the reorganization plan, including that it focus on eliminating disparities — especially racial disparities — for students with disabilities.

In July, the district got a new special education director. Robert Frantum-Allen was a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing in Denver Public Schools for more than 20 years before becoming an administrator. He said his first goal was to set a vision for the department. To that end, he hosted listening sessions over the summer, and convened the task force in the fall.

Here are its recommendations, along with preliminary estimates by Frantum-Allen of what it will cost to fund them. Superintendent Susana Cordova has said she is reserving some of the savings from recent cuts to the district’s central office for that purpose.

All Denver schools should commit to first teaching students with special needs in the general education classroom, with the appropriate aids and services.

This would apply to both district-run and charter schools. The task force also recommends that all schools agree to “an ongoing campaign highlighting the benefits of including students with disabilities in all school activities.”

Research studies from multiple countries have found that students with disabilities who are included in the regular classroom score higher on tests, develop better social skills, and are more likely to graduate high school.

Denver’s own data backs that up. Last year, 8 percent of students who were in the regular classroom at least 80 percent of the time met expectations on the state literacy test, compared with only 1 to 2 percent of students who spent more time in segregated programs.

Typical students can also benefit socially and academically from inclusion, research shows. When a teacher can skillfully adapt lessons for all academic levels, that’s good for students without disabilities, too. Other studies have found that typical students whose classrooms are inclusive hold fewer prejudices about people with disabilities.

A first step toward making this recommendation a reality, Frantum-Allen said, would be for the school board to pass a policy by the fall committing to inclusion. District staff would then assess the level of inclusion at each school and help craft plans to increase that, if need be.

By 2022, Frantum-Allen said his goal would be to move all students with moderate disabilities, such as developmental delays, out of segregated “center” programs and into the general population. The estimated cost to do that alone would be $3.5 million spread over three years. The estimated cost to do everything associated with this recommendation is even higher.

All students should be evaluated for whether they have a disability in a “comprehensive, culturally appropriate, and bias-free manner.”

This is meant to eliminate disparities between white students and students of color. One example: Black students in Denver are more likely to be diagnosed with a “serious emotional disability,” while white students are more likely to be diagnosed with autism.

Most students are referred for a disability evaluation by general education teachers, Frantum-Allen said. One of the first steps here would be to train teachers on how to make bias-free referrals to special education. The full estimated cost is still to be determined.

The district should provide funding for appropriate staffing “based on educator workload,” as well as funding for curriculum, materials, and in-school health services.

The district currently uses a static yearly count of students in special education to determine the caseloads of special education teachers and specialized service providers, such as occupational therapists and speech language pathologists.

But doing it that way doesn’t account for the students who move in and out of schools in the middle of the year, or the students who are newly identified as having a disability. It also treats each student on an educator’s caseload as equal, instead of considering that some students require only an hour of services each week, while others require 40 hours.

Because of that fluctuation, the task force is recommending the district base special education staffing on workload instead of caseload. A first step here, Frantum-Allen said, would be for the district’s finance department to compile data and research different staffing models, with the aim of choosing one by the end of the year. The full estimated cost is still to be determined.

The district should recruit, develop, and retain high-quality diverse special educators.

There is a shortage of special educators, and Denver Public Schools already offers extra pay to middle and high school special education teachers in an effort to recruit and retain them. But Frantum-Allen envisions another strategy, as well: providing special educators the training they need to do their difficult jobs in an effort to reduce burnout and turnover.

The estimated cost of providing training to educators this summer would be about $212,000.

The district should screen all entering students for predictors of future reading problems, such as dyslexia, which affects 10 to 20 percent of people.

This recommendation also calls for elementary schools to adopt a “multisensory, sequential, scientifically based, structured literacy methodology” for teaching reading and writing. The approach focuses on phonics; one of the most famous is the Orton-Gillingham approach.

A bill being considered by Colorado lawmakers would also expand screening for children with dyslexia, but the timeline for doing so would be long. Task force members expressed hope that Denver Public Schools could put these practices into place more quickly.

Frantum-Allen’s proposed timeline would have the district develop a process to screen for dyslexia by spring 2020, and have at least one staff member trained in an approach like Orton-Gillingham working in every elementary school by fall 2022. The estimated cost of this recommendation next year would be just over $300,000.

Parent Tywanna Jones said the five recommendations could make Denver Public Schools a national exemplar. “We want our district to be the best district in the country,” she said. “We want to set the example.”

McGuirk said she hopes the recommendations are put in place — and funded — expediently.

“There’s a sense of urgency,” she said.