Middle-school students are sensitive about appearances, so Lorna Campbell worried when her son, Robbie, started at Eckstein several years...

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Middle-school students are sensitive about appearances, so Lorna Campbell worried when her son, Robbie, started at Eckstein several years ago.

In elementary school, Robbie was pulled out of class for extra writing help because of his learning disability. At Eckstein, Robbie was enrolled in one of the most inclusive special-education programs in the district.

Instead of signing up for English classes just for special-education students, Robbie, who struggled with the fine motor skills needed to write and had trouble converting his thoughts to the page, was enrolled in a general-education language-arts class taught by a pair of teachers.

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“What really worked well for him was that he was in classes with other friends that he knew didn’t have a learning disability,” Campbell said. “He wasn’t identified as anything.”

As a task force begins this spring to revamp Seattle Public Schools’ approach to special education, it’s likely many classrooms around the district will begin to look more like Eckstein’s. The details haven’t been worked out, but in general, the district will try to deliver services to the students instead of bringing the students to the services.

A consultant recommended Seattle try to include more students in general-education classes and educate more special-education students at their neighborhood schools.

As the diagnosis of disabilities becomes more refined, school districts nationwide are faced with students whose needs are more complicated. At the same time, districts face federal requirements to meet individual students’ educational needs in the least restrictive environment possible.

Balancing those two realities can be difficult, said Doug Gill, the director of special education for the Washington state Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction.

“What I see is districts serving kids, sometimes with more complex needs, and as you see kids served with more complex needs, you need, really, a more specialized environment,” he said.

But the best districts in the country are finding ways to balance those things, said Julie Wright Halbert of the Council of Great City Schools, a national organization that supports urban school districts, including Seattle.

“The more severe the disability, the harder it is to include, but our school districts definitely do it, and do it well,” she said.

Co-teaching is one way to do it, she said, but it’s one of the more expensive models.

Restrictive environment

About 6,500 of Seattle Public Schools’ approximately 46,000 students have a disability.

An October report by the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative estimated that more than 30 percent of Seattle Public Schools students with disabilities are in a more restrictive environment than federal law requires. The lead consultant, who is helping the school district put his recommendations into place, said the district’s model is “outdated.”

To serve the range of students enrolled in the district, schools have developed programs so specific that a change to a student’s needs can force a move to a different school. Some special-education students take taxis — on the district’s dime — across town to get to a program that meets their needs.

Lowell Elementary has long served the district’s most medically fragile special-needs students alongside its gifted program on Capitol Hill.

In the past couple of years, the district has made no secret of the fact that it’s considering changing Lowell’s format. In 2006, district officials backed off a plan to move all special-education students out of Lowell to give them access to general-education classrooms and make more space at Lowell for gifted students, who share the school now.

Last year, Lowell special-education teacher Katie Taylor asked the district to move her K-5 class to a school where students had more opportunities to mix with other kids.

“I think they would benefit from their peers, definitely,” she said. “They are all really social, and really like being with their peers, and are motivated by their peers.”

The district turned down Taylor’s request. It will be considered along with other program-location changes over the next year as the district rewrites its student-assignment plan, said Michelle Corker-Curry, the district’s deputy chief academic officer.

A federal law that requires students to learn in their “least-restrictive environment” will force some change to the school, the district said, but Corker-Curry stressed that kids won’t be pushed outside of their abilities.

Looking at the results

The district’s approach to special education will shift over the next three years.

“Special education should be a service and not a place,” Corker-Curry said. But even after the district reorganizes, students who need a program separate from other children will still be able to attend one. “We’re going to put kids only where they learn best,” she said.

Marni Campbell, who was principal at Eckstein when its inclusion program began, said special-education students could fall behind without extra help.

Offering classes co-taught by a special-education teacher and another teacher ensures kids get that help, she said. Often there is also an instructional assistant in the room.

“When you start really looking at the results, you can’t argue with that,” said Campbell, who is now principal at Nathan Hale High School. “The kid who the year before couldn’t write a sentence, he’s writing a whole essay.”

At Eckstein, in Northeast Seattle, about a third of the students in each class receive special education for various reasons. But that extra help is delivered with such subtlety you would have to be looking for it to recognize it.

All the students study the same topic, but based on their abilities, some get modified assignments, more time, shorter books. A glance through completed student assignments reveals a range of abilities and approaches to the same topics.

“It’s fun,” said language-arts teacher Lesley Rosenthal, who also team-taught Robbie’s class several years ago. “It’s a super open-doors policy.”

For Robbie, now 16, being in a general-education class helped him see that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, his mother said.

He began asking for support, she said, because he understood he could “hold his own” as long as he had the right accommodations.

“It just really gave him confidence,” she said. “It helped him find kind of the student within.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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