In December, the Education Lab team held a retreat to identify a theme for 2019.

The idea was that if we all focused on one topic, we could have an impact: we could expose problems and share rigorous reporting on solutions with readers and decision-makers in a position to create change.

We wanted to select a topic that would draw on the experiences of local districts and families, provide compelling stories and have solutions to document alongside the problems.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Amazon and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab

While the team looked forward, I looked back. As education editor at The Seattle Times, I often think about a young boy named Max Masucci, someone who unknowingly changed the trajectory of my career when I was a reporter in New York.

When I met him in 2013, Max was a sweet, giggly 4-year-old.

Max had autism. He couldn’t talk or say his name. He moved and fidgeted so much it was hard to take a photograph that didn’t look like a blur. Like other children with autism, one day he went missing from school, and school didn’t notice — until his father found him crossing a field, bobbing aimlessly toward a highly trafficked street.

Advertising

I spent time with the Masucci family, learning about their plight to find a school for their son.

It was eye-opening: their Washington, D.C., public school kicked me out of the building because I tried to listen to a planning meeting.

I got sucked into the Masucci family’s world, eager to learn about the legal framework that gives students like Max a special federal right to schooling — but also puts even the most privileged parents through the wringer, and ultimately yields lower life outcomes for many students with disabilities. So I studied, taking college classes about disability rights, culture and developmental psychology. I wanted to know everything.

That experience informed Ed Lab’s December retreat and led us to this year’s theme: specialized education.

What exactly is specialized education, and how is it different from special education?

“Special education” is an industry term that refers to schools, programs and people that serve kids with disabilities. “Specialized education” acknowledges that many kinds of children aren’t necessarily well-served by conventional teaching methods. Ed Lab will look for solutions that serve them all. Special education is a subcategory of specialized education, but not our sole focus.

Advertising

We’re spending a year using our collective reporting and engagement might to focus on nontraditional students. That category includes students with disabilities, but it also includes students who have crossed paths with the justice system, and kids who simply have different skills and smarts from the ones that translate into academic success.

We’ll look at this through a broad lens, asking who needs schooling that’s different from standard offerings in 2019. That includes kids who speak other languages at home, immigrants, homeless youth and others on the margins. When schools fail these kids, it can interfere with learning in all classrooms — and when these kids get older, that failure can come with a heavy economic cost.

Can the Legislature change Washington’s track record on special education?

While the theme “specialized education” will encompass a variety of students, we will also look closely at special education. Washington lands near the bottom of state rankings of the performance and inclusion of its students with disabilities, and a recent survey told us that Ed Lab readers want to read more about this topic.

As we reported earlier this month, the Legislature is trying to address shortcomings in special education. We want to inform these changes with reporting on solutions that work; states and districts that are doing better by their special-needs students; and parents who have found workarounds.

I’m cautiously optimistic about this reporting journey — cautious because I’ve seen the system fail families with special needs. Optimistic because we’re looking at it through the lens of solutions journalism: we’re seeking case studies of systems and programs that do elevate students with disabilities, bilingual children, kids who lack a stable home and others facing different challenges.

The more parents we meet, the more I learn about how different their stories are — but how universally isolating and trying their situations can feel. Hopefully, we can take you into their worlds, and at least make a dent in the way we talk about and understand people who are different. Beyond building community and empathy, we’re investigating possible responses to problems — on all scales.

Have an idea? We want to know. You can tell us about your struggles and solutions for nontraditional students below.