Seattle SpEd PTSA Board letter regarding proposed ACCESS ratios for high school students

Dear Directors, Dr. Nyland, Mr. Knapp and Ms Campano,

The Seattle Special Education PTSA Board and its membership have followed closely the progress of District and SEA contract negotiations.  We’re encouraged that the District is finally implementing the best practice service delivery model emphasizing inclusion, as conceived by the Joint Special Education Task Force.  This is a plan that has been years in the making.  The PTSA stands firm that the ACCESS (inclusion) model be implemented with fidelity to the fundamentals and the spirit of its design.

For that reason, the PTSA Board is dismayed by the District’s bargaining proposal to set untenably high ratios for our secondary students in ACCESS programs.  We take issue with the proposed changes for the following reasons (to be elaborated below):

·        Special Education at the secondary level needs vast improvement, not backsliding;

·        Increased ACCESS ratios impact students with Autism Spectrum disorders the most;

·        Less inclusion support at the high school level runs counter to students needs at those grade levels;

·        Increased ACCESS ratios will exacerbate the opportunity gap and graduation rate for many classes of our youth;

·        Access or inclusion support is not intended to be cheaper than intensive special education; it is a necessary investment to: comply with IDEA mandates; provide a true continuum of placements; and, guarantee the success of our students’ outcomes.

As it stands, the District’s secondary level special education services are frequently silo-ed, rely heavily on “Life Skills” and “Study Skills” cookie-cutter courses or modified academic classes, and offer few opportunities for students in self-contained classrooms to access the breadth of academics, enrichment activities, electives and social settings in high school.  Special education at the secondary level needs improvements to achieve a true continuum.  The current, widely varying programs violate the IDEA mandate that special education students be offered a continuum of placements and opportunities to be educated in the least-restrictive environment with their typical peers.

The PTSA Board notes that many students in ACCESS are on the Autism Spectrum, have significant disabilities, and would typically be assigned to SM4 classes with opportunities for inclusion.  The staffing ratio for SM4 was 8:1:2;  SM4 is now called “Distinct” and is proposed at 7:1:2 staffing.  This has heretofore provided support for students with ASD in the general education setting.  We are pleased to see the district’s continued emphasis on staffing for these students.

The District now proposes to nearly double the ACCESS ratio for high school to 15:1:3 – well beyond the 10:1:3 staffing developed by the Special Education Task Force.  Simply because students rise to secondary school does not mean that their needs are any less.  Students with disabilities,, particularly at the secondary level, are very often required to take special education classes such as “Study Skills” or “Life Skills” to receive the necessary specially designed instruction specified on their IEPs (a defect in the district’s design of special education service delivery in high school).  The side-effect of these special education classes is that students have a reduced opportunity to take academic, elective, enhancement and exploratory classes.  Failure to consider students with disabilities over the entirety of a school’s offerings weakens their social and academic standing in communities and results in marginalizing students to second class citizen status.

As students age, the significance of inclusion increases, NOT decreases. Students take academics and electives that develop interests and talents which could lead to a desire to stay in school, graduate, earn scholarships and train for careers.   As the importance of these classes increases, the availability seems to decrease for students with disabilities, even as students with disabilities need these offerings even more.    Academic, extracurricular and elective classes provide much needed social connectedness, community engagement, and career preparation.  The law requires the District to appropriate support these students and provide equitable access.  The ACCESS ratios of 10:1:3 for students with significant disabilities would accomplish this; ratios of 15:1:3 would not.

Denial of our students’ equitable access to all that high school has to offer will further exacerbate the opportunity gap for: students with disabilities, the poor, and students of color too often misidentified as requiring special education.   Too often these students are enrolled in modified academics classes which are remedial in nature, because this is a convenient way for school buildings to handle these students, track them into specific pathways, and ill-prepare them for post-secondary education or training.  Students with disabilities who struggle with minimal support will, at minimum, fall in the gap, and at the worst be forced into more expensive placements – self-contained and out of district placements.  This not only costs more money – it ensures a worse educational experience and worse outcome.  ACCESS/Inclusion is not intended to be a less costly alternative to self-contained; it is a different placement, and a different level and location of service;  one required to maintain a “Continuum of Placements”; one that must be resourced enough to succeed lest it become another ICS debacle.

The PTA mission is “To make every child’s potential a reality by engage and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children”.   Special Education PTSA advocates on behalf of students with disabilities and their families.  The PTSA Board asks that the District and the SEA work together to negotiate an agreement that place the welfare and educational outcomes of our students FIRST.  Do NOT increase ACCESS ratios and thereby decrease support for our young people trying to make their way into the world.

Respectfully,

Cecilia McCormick

President, Seattle Special Education PTSA

Lori HIltz

Co-Vice President, Seattle Special Education PTSA

Anne Sheeran

Co-Vice President, Seattle Special Education PTSA

Ayn McNutt

Treasurer, Seattle Special Education PTSA

Lauren Feaux

Staff Representative, Seattle Special Education PTSA

Mary Griffin

Legislative Chair, Seattle Special Education PTSA

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