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Seattle Public Schools has 18 months to fix persistent problems in its special-education programs, or risk losing millions of dollars in federal special-education funding or
control over how it can spend that money.

The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) set the deadline after years of warnings.

The district, state officials say, is failing to keep an accurate count of its special-education students, doesn’t ensure that all students who qualify for special-education services receive them, and often doesn’t follow the academic plans all such students must have. That’s just a sampling.

Most important, they say, the same problems keep cropping up, with the district addressing an issue at one school, only to have it recur the next year in other schools, and yet other schools the next.

“This isn’t just fixing a couple of files, it’s fixing the entire system so it is more uniform, so it is more responsive to the needs of kids,” said Doug Gill, the state’s special-education director.

No other Washington school district in at least 20 years has faced such a strong possibility of state intervention, Gill said.

Seattle’s special-education leaders don’t dispute the state’s findings,

saying they’ve been aware of them for almost a year and are nearly done with a plan to attend to them.

Zakiyyah McWilliams, the district’s very new executive director of special education, and Stacey McCrath-Smith, the second in command, say they have no doubt the district can meet the deadline and not jeopardize the $11 million a year it receives from the federal government for special-education services.

Overall, the district spent about $82 million on special education in the 2011-12 school year, with 1 of every 7 students — a total of about 7,000 — receiving services for disabilities ranging from autism to deafness. That’s up from about 6,400 students five years ago.

Since Superintendent José Banda arrived last summer, McCrath-Smith said, the district has taken special education much more seriously.

McWilliams and McCrath-Smith, for example, now both sit on the superintendent’s cabinet.

Along with addressing the issues raised by the state, they also want to make big changes to the way the district delivers special-education services — a sore spot among many parents and teachers.

The new changes, recommended by a task force led by the district and the teachers union, would tailor services to each child, rather than assigning students to existing programs, McCrath-Smith said.

The district won’t solve all its problems overnight, she said, but the special-education department now has a strong team in place that will stop simply putting out fires and work instead to prevent them.

“We’re going to be in all schools,” added McWilliams, who arrived from California just two weeks ago to direct Seattle’s program. “They are going to be sick of seeing us.”

Much-needed attention

To many parents and teachers, the state’s findings validate much of what they’ve been trying to tell the district for years.

They credit the district — and McCrath-Smith in particular — with making a number of improvements this school year, but they’re happy to see the state finally step in to fix what they consider a broken system.

The district “just can’t keep neglecting special-education students,” said Mary Griffin, president-elect of the Seattle Special Education PTSA.

“Everybody from the school board on down … needs to stop looking at special education as nothing but a black hole for money,” she said. ”It’s an important aspect of education for very vulnerable students — and their issues need to be addressed.”

Stacy Gillett, who often works with special education issues in the governor’s education ombudsman’s office, said the state’s decision, while difficult, was needed.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “This is about discrimination.”

Special education is a complex area, and few districts get it all right all the time. Despite its problems, Seattle serves some students well, said Gill, pointing to parent surveys the state conducts.

Still, Seattle has not received a “meets requirements” rating from the state since 2008, longer than other big districts such as Spokane and Tacoma. And Gill said Seattle is the only district that can’t seem to learn from past mistakes.

State requirements

The state is responsible for monitoring how districts spend their federal special-education dollars. Its 68-page report about Seattle’s shortcomings has few concrete details about specific problems, but
it included a number of distressing statistics.

One is that Seattle has four times the state average for out-of-date learning plans for special-student students — called individualized education programs, or IEPs.

Another is that nearly a third of the complaints filed by parents in the past four years weren’t resolved in a timely way.

Overall, the state is requiring Seattle to:

• Establish a plan to provide effective, equitable and systematic services to special-education students.

• Make it clear who is responsible for making decisions about special-education services and who is responsible for ensuring students receive them.

• Maintain stable leadership in the special-education department.

• Reserve up to 15 percent of the district’s special-education money to carry out the required corrections.

In OSPI’s view, one big problem has been leadership.

Over the past five years, Seattle Public Schools has had eight executive directors and interim executive directors of special education, a turnover rate that reflects the difficulty of the job and an overall leadership churn in the district. Lines of responsibility weren’t clear farther down the chain either.

To determine why one special-education classroom was not ready when school started, for example, Gill said his office “had to develop a flow chart of all the people someone has to talk to, to get something done.”

Gill said it appeared Seattle’s problems also stem from a long-standing philosophy that each school should have a lot of autonomy, a practice the district has been moving away from in recent years.

That independence, combined with the lack of leadership from the district’s central office, led to inconsistencies in how schools interpret special-education policies and procedures, he said.

District officials agree that leadership turnover has taken its toll, and School Board member Michael DeBell said the board should have made special education a higher priority sooner.

He said the district didn’t fully implement changes to special education begun under former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, so it was trying to operate two models at the same time.

McWilliams says she will work closely with McCrath-Smith, with McWilliams responsible for ensuring the district is complying with special-education laws and McCrath-Smith more focused on training teachers and principals, and working with parents.

They plan to do a school-by-school analysis to identify each building’s strengths and weaknesses.

They say they will fix the problems the state identified and others that it did not, including the fact that some groups of students are overly represented in special-education programs, especially Native American students and those who are learning English.

McCrath-Smith also said special education has suffered because as enrollment has grown in recent years, the district’s special-education staff has not. The district will get some relief this fall with plans to add about nine new positions, including school psychologists and others who evaluate students to see if they need services.

Still, many special-education teachers feel overwhelmed by their workload.

Impetus for change

Gill, the state director of special education, expressed confidence Seattle can turn its special-education programs around.

“I believe Seattle does have the willingness to do this,” he said. “Hopefully this gives them the impetus.”

It’s not a coincidence, he said, that the state delivered its final report — and its threat of withholding money — just as McWilliams arrived.

The state wanted the district’s newest special-education leader to have a blueprint to work from, he said, with the goal of helping Seattle regain the status it once had as an example for other districts to follow.

But if the district doesn’t shape up, the state will step in.

“At some point, he said, “You have to do the right thing.”

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or On Twitter @LShawST