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During the 10 months that Glenna Gallo has been guiding special education in Washington, one of the things that’s surprised her most is the silence. As she travels the state, holding public meetings and talking with advocates, public comment periods often pass without a single speaker. No one shares their experience, or asks a question.

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 and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

Yet Gallo knows there are overflowing concerns.

Parents of students with disabilities file close to 100 due-process hearing requests annually, alleging inadequate instruction or inappropriate discipline. In 2017, only four of these complaints were resolved.

Meanwhile, thousands of disabled students leave high school so underprepared that only 21.8 percent go on to college.

“Interesting,” is the way Gallo, whose official title is assistant superintendent over special education, describes this figure, one of the worst higher-education rates for disabled students in the country.

What follows is an interview with the 44-year-old Las Vegas native, who once thought she’d grow up to be a math teacher, but instead has made a career shaping national and state-level policies to ensure that schools follow the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

She comes to Olympia after seven years of leading Utah’s special-education system, and is taking a hard look at the way Washington will spend its $1.3 billion budget to cover kids with disabilities next year.

Many of the following questions were inspired by readers responding to our Ed Lab IQ call-out on special education.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Education Lab: What’s your strongest impression of special education in Washington?

Glenna Gallo: There has been a tremendous amount of focus here on short-term decisions that ensure compliance with the IDEA, but don’t consider the long-term effects two or four years down the road, when a student leaves school. The data reflect that we really need to make some improvements.

EL: In what areas, specifically? You’ve pinpointed our low college-going rates for kids with disabilities. How many are actually making it through high school?

GG: The most recent numbers show that 2,700 students with disabilities dropped out in 2016, and about 5,700 graduated. Some dropouts will return, so that figure may not be absolutely accurate. But I’m very concerned that 35 percent of our students with disabilities who leave high school go into what’s called ‘competitive employment.’ Which means a job ‘at or above minimum wage for 20 hours or more a week.’ It’s somewhat misleading to call that competitive employment.

EL: OK, let’s back up to the beginning. When a child is determined to have a disability, is the expectation that they’ll never return to a regular classroom? Considering the results you’ve just outlined, many parents would be extremely worried about that.

GG: The intent is not to say, ‘Once you’re in special ed you’re there forever.’ It should be very much a fluid system.

EL: But so many students with disabilities are segregated in separate classrooms, away from their peers, and aren’t learning the same material. So how can they ever transition back?

GG: That’s something I’m looking at very closely — better partnerships with the general-education system, because the idea is for us to do it together. Special education has become very siloed. But the intent of the IDEA is to supplement, rather than replace, content instruction. Special-education teachers are not all trained in content. And kids need that — they need content experts.

EL: OK, that brings up one of our reader questions, which is: Why doesn’t Washington teach disabled students in the same room as mainstream kids — with an extra teacher there to provide help — because some data show that practice, inclusion, can be effective?

GG: The law is very clear. There has to be ‘a continuum of options.’ The general-education classroom is one option and should be considered first. But we are actually prohibited from requiring that all students be in a general-ed classroom. Should more students with disabilities be included in general-education classrooms? Possibly.

EL: And there’s a shortage of special-education teachers, right?

GG: Yes, in Washington and nationally. We also have a shortage of school psychologists and speech and language pathologists. Especially in rural areas.

EL: Here’s another reader question: Why does the state cap special-education reimbursement to districts at 13.5 percent? What if a district needs to serve more kids?

GG: The cap is a legislative decision, and last summer it was raised from 12.7 percent, where it had been for years and years, to where it is now. Many districts are already over the 13.5 percent, possibly because there is some over-identification going on, which is something else I’m looking at. But even then, they can still receive federal funding or use levy dollars. The cap doesn’t prevent a district from identifying students or providing services.

EL: What else concerns you?

GG: Well, I’m seeing interesting trends — and higher-than-average rates — in students with learning disabilities who happen to be English Language Learners.

EL: Are you saying that we’ve been labeling kids as disabled when they’re actually just trying to learn English?

GG: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.