Is Hawaii Failing Its Special Education Students?

Feb 24, 2016

Credit Flickr / dcJohn

A recent internal audit by the Hawai‘i Department of Education revealed staffing shortages and significant problems in the state’s special education program. Despite nearly a quarter of the DOE’S budget going to special education services, students with disabilities are continuing to fall behind academically. HPR’s Molly Solomon has more.

Rachel Handlin at CalArts during orientation week in September. The second semester freshman is studying photography.
Credit Jay Handlin

Jay Handlin shows me into his Kailua home. The proud dad immediately whips out his laptop, to show me some of the work by his daughter Rachel, who is studying photography in Los Angeles. "She likes reflections and patterns," said Handlin. "She find geometry in things that most people miss." Rachel also has a learning disability: Down syndrome. "Rachel graduated with a full academic diploma from St. Andrew's Priory school in June, 2015," said Handlin. "She is now a second semester freshman at the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts."

Handlin says his daughter likely wouldn’t be in college, if she hadn’t spent pre-K through high school fully included with her peers in the general education setting. But it wasn’t always easy, especially when the family moved to O‘ahu from Los Angeles, California. Handlin said Rachel had a particularly difficult time transitioning at Kaimukī Middle School. "She has one year of tough grades in her entire education," he said. "And it was in 7th grade at Kaimuki Middle."

Rachel Handlin poses in front of four of her photographs at a recent group show in New York. She's part of Heart & Sold, a collective of artists with Down syndrome
Credit Jay Handlin

Rachel and her family were often met with resistance, especially when discussing her I.E.P., or Individualized Education Program. That’s the legally-binding document that structures each student’s special ed. For Rachel, it was important to have an educational assistant and be provided with a study guide. "It is very valuable work," said Handlin. "It's also required by law."

"Federal law requires that students receive their education in the least restrictive environment," said Brian De Lima, the vice chairman of the Hawai‘i Board of Education, whose daughter is also a student with special needs. He says statistics show Hawai‘i lags far behind other states when it comes to inclusion. Nationally, 62 percent of students with special needs spend most of their day in the general education classroom. In Hawai‘i, only 36 percent meet that mark. "And that's why it's very necessary for the Board and the Department to ensure that the culture in the classroom and the school recognizes that this is a priority."

DOE Assistant Superintendent Suzanne Mulcahy admits they need to be doing more. "This is a crisis, all hands on deck," she said. "We have to all come together and we have to attack this issue from many different sides." Part of the problem is vacancies within the department, including 101 unfilled positions for special education classroom teachers. Mulcahy says the DOE also needs to hire 484 educational assistants. "The challenge there is when you don't have positions filled with qualified, licensed teachers," said Mulcahy. "Then you extend to people who are willing to teach."

That can result in the hiring of teachers who don’t have experience in special education and can lead to inconsistent services for students. "Every teacher I've talked to is crying and begging for professional development," said Martha Guinen, who chairs SEAC, the state’s Special Education Advisory Council. She thinks a lot of these problems grew after federal court supervision of the state’s special education program ended in 2005. "Now that we're not under that restraint, things are backsliding."

Last year, SEAC reported the achievement gap between special education students and their peers has dramatically increased over the past decade. In math, the gap more than doubled from 21 percent in 2004 to 49 percent in 2014. It’s a situation familiar to Ivalee Sinclair, who chaired SEAC from 2011 to 2015. "The fact that you're doing things the same way you have, when it' s not working and the scores are getting worse doesn't make any sense to me," said Sinclair. "I don't understand why there isn't more of an openness to looking at ways of doing things differently."

The DOE calls it a priority with an immediate focus on filling teacher vacancies. Last year, nearly a quarter of the DOE’s budget, or $326 million, went  to special education.