Monday marks the fourth and final week of Seattle Public Schools’ in-person Summer Staircase program, intended to bring students who need extra help back into the classroom for part of the summer. There are about 2,500 students and about 250 teachers on campuses this summer.
But some children in special education programs missed a quarter of that class time because of what parents say is a lack of staffing and poor communication from Seattle Public Schools administrators.
A school district spokesperson said that summer school has largely run as planned, but did not comment on the experiences of parents who said they found empty classrooms and slow solutions.
However, Seattle Public Schools board member Liza Rankin, who represents the north end of the district, said the complaints were valid. Many school staff wanted a break this summer and there was “definitely” a shortage of staff during the first week of summer school, Rankin said. The district also didn’t adequately communicate with families about what was being offered this summer and who was supposed to get those services, she said.
“The summer school situation is kind of a bit of a microcosm of the whole system,” Rankin said. “If we focus on meeting the needs of students, and everything we do is in service of students and starts there, instead of with what our adults need … I really think it’s going to improve a lot of things.”
Students needed a referral to attend in-person summer school this year because of limited staffing and to ensure space for social distancing. It was designed for students who needed extra support.
When Chelle Johnson brought her soon-to-be second grader to his first day of in-person summer school, she found Seattle Public Schools staff in the building but not for her son. Johnson worried her son, who has Down syndrome and needs an instructional assistant, wouldn’t be safe if she left him with someone who wasn’t experienced in special education.
“I’m not going to leave him in a place where the plan is, ‘We’ll figure it out,’” she said.
Like Johnson, Sam Butler said he didn’t know where or when to take his son until a couple of days before summer school was supposed to start. There also wasn’t a teacher present for Butler’s son’s first day of summer school.
“It was basically my son with an iPad sitting in an empty classroom with one single adult,” said Butler, whose son receives special education services.
Butler said he didn’t take his son back to summer school until the second week when he knew his son would be in a general education classroom with a teacher present.
Accessing online learning during the last school year has been difficult, and sometimes impossible, for students in special education classes. Kirsten Eklund had to hire private tutors to help her son read. She also had to start working part time because her son needed full-time assistance learning remotely.
Because of the difficulties students in special education classes had during distance learning, Seattle schools offered a Recovery Services program. It’s designed for students with disabilities who haven’t made progress on their individualized education program, better known as IEP.
But Eklund said her son’s IEP hasn’t been followed during summer school.
Eklund’s son will be a third grader in the fall and struggles with behavioral issues because of a genetic mutation that causes an intellectual disability, she said. His IEP says he needs to have a one-on-one instructional assistant, but that hasn’t happened during in-person summer school. Eklund said there was only one instructional assistant for the whole class.
“It’s hard for us to know if he is truly accessing education,” said Eklund, who is also on the board of the Seattle Special Education PTSA.
Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson didn’t specifically comment on Johnson, Butler or Eklund’s issues during summer school but said families are encouraged to raise their concerns with teachers, principals or district officials.
All three parents said they reached out to school and district administrators extensively and received little to no communication in return.
“As always, we pledge to work diligently to correct any mistakes as necessary, and to make any adjustments as necessary,” Robinson said in an email.
Seattle Schools staff have started to have conversations about how to improve summer school next year, board member Rankin said, because the current approach hasn’t worked for some students. There’s been “lots of scrambling and reactionary attitudes” from the district she said, and special education services cannot be treated as an “afterthought.”
The district hired an instructional assistant to help Eklund’s son for the last six days of summer school, she said. Although she doubts her son will be able to do much academic learning, he is getting to socialize and learn how to be part of a group.
Janis White, president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA, said she is sympathetic to staffing issues but “what I’m not sympathetic to is the lack of planning and lack of communication.”
“It does not make sense to me that a district of this size is not aware of staffing issues prior to the first day of summer school,” White said.
Some students need assistance eating or going to the bathroom and to not have certificated staff or instructional assistants “is just not acceptable particularly when put in context of what same families have been through this year,” White said.
Although there still isn’t a special education certified teacher in Butler’s son’s classroom, it has been better after the first week, he said. His soon-to-be fifth grader is in a classroom with a teacher and students, and they’re learning grade-level material.
“The bare minimum things we expected are happening,” he said. “My belief is they would not have happened without a lot of loud knocking on a lot of big doors.”