Maggie Mackey still attends Bainbridge High School, even though she graduated last spring.
Like other students with multiple disabilities, Maggie qualifies for public education until she is 21, under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“In our house we call it ‘post-graduate work,’” said Sheri Ley-Mackey, Maggie’s mother.
Maggie’s school day is a combination of what is known in special education parlance as “inclusion” and “pull out” – learning with non-disabled peers in the regular classroom, and time in the “Life Skills” class.
“Even though we knew Maggie would be at school in the fall, graduation was very moving,” Ley-Mackey said. “When Maggie went to get her diploma, I couldn’t believe how many people clapped and cheered.”
Ley-Mackey can remember how kids at her own elementary school made fun of a classmate with thick glasses. But she has never seen anyone tease her daughter.
Staff and students speak directly and respectfully to Maggie. She went on the senior cruise. The district even hired a special bus so she could go on field trips.
Ley-Mackey has, by her own account, volunteered many hours in the district, giving back for the services her daughter has received since preschool, acknowledging that Maggie has used more resources than other special education children.
And resources are limited.
The law mandates an education tailored to the needs of children whose disabilities may cover a wide spectrum, while the federal government holds funding to 12 percent of costs – not the 40 percent once promised.
“Doing the right thing (for speccial education students) can be challenging,” said Clayton Mork, the Bainbridge School District’s new director of special services, “because a need or desire can exceed resources.”
The largest of the so-called “entitlement” programs – bringing $2.578 million in state and federal funds to the district this year, and serving 12.69 percent of students – special education has long been a focus of parent concern.
“Special education” is defined as specially designed instruction.
Special ed students often receive customized teaching in more than one setting during the school day.
They learn in the general classroom with support from general education teachers. These teachers might, for example, use a sound system for a hearing-impaired student, and receive additional assistance from a paraeducator (the “inclusion” model).
Students may also spend part of the day in the “resource room” for kids with lesser disabilities, or in the “functional” or “life skills” room for the more severely disabled (the “pull-out” model).
In addition, there may be special settings where kids with similar disabilities are grouped, like Commodore Center’s Renaissance program for behavior disorders.
A special education teacher heads the pull-out classrooms, monitors paraeducators and student’s progress, keeps paperwork current, works to customize the general curriculum – perhaps finding special workbooks that parallel the curriculum, or purchasing a book on tape and teaches.
Disabilities cover a wide spectrum, in both severity and type.
Categories include “health impaired,” “mentally retarded,” and if the discrepancy between a child’s IQ and academic achievement is great enough, “learning disabled.”
A student may need only a few minutes of help a day to organize notebooks, but a severely impacted student may require constant one-on-one supervision.
Disabilities range from behavior disorder to traumatic brain injury.
To meet the needs of students in the Bainbridge District, there are 18.6 full-time-equivalent special education teachers; 62 paraeducators (instructional assistants)delivering a total of 329 hours per day; 4.9 speech and language pathologists; 3.7 occupational and physical therapists; 3.4 psychologists, a part-time mental health specialist and “compliance coordinator” to help the district complie with complex special ed law.
But misunderstanding of special education law and inconsistent practices in the district contributed to growing dissatisfaction by some parents in the late 1990s, resulting in suits against the district last year.
Between June and September 2000, parents initiated nine requests for special education hearings – the formal process by which complaints about the program are addressed and resolved – more than in any other district in Washington last year.
Of the hearing requests, three were settled in favor of the family before adjudication; two were settled in the district’s favor; and one was adjudicated for the child.
Another family left the district before resolution, and one complaint was resolved in mediation.
Since school opened this fall, there has been one request for a hearing. That matter has been resolved without the formal hearing – although with the intervention of attorneys, Mork says.
Bainbridge cases addressed such issues as whether the district’s services met the federal standard known as “Free and Appropriate Public Education.”
If not, the district may pay a student’s private school tuition or tutoring, or extend public education to a student beyond age 21.
In one case, a parent successfully argued that his daughter with multiple disabilities had not received FAPE by her 21st year, and should have public education extended beyond that age.
In another instance, parents removed children to a private school because they believed the district was not providing FAPE.
Cases have also hinged on such mundane issues as filling in and filing forms correctly, rather than on quality of service.
Recent cases have cost the Bainbridge School District close to $165,000, with $40,000 of that underwritten by its insurance pool.
The district’s legal problems, which continued through 2000-01, prevented program changes until late in the school year.
Some parents believe it took their complaints to focus the district’s attention on special education.
“Before the hearings it was all about the high achieving, high-WASL kids,” said a parent who did not wish to be identified.
A 1999 independent report on special education in Bainbridge schools pinpointed many problems with programs, including confusion about special ed law and weak leadership from principals.
Parents have pointed to specifics, including an American Studies course required for high school graduation that many say is too difficult for learning-disabled students and instances of special ed students placed in the general ed classroom without support.
“There is a massive difference between identifying a deficiency and working toward remediation,” said Robin Hunt, parent of a special education student.
“Does (a student’s plan) merely identify the kid’s special needs, or does it identify actual teaching strategies to minimize deficiencies?”
Some parents have turned to private tutoring to help their children, occasionally at the district’s urging.
“The amount spent on private tutoring on the island is staggering,” parent Susan Brown said, “but parents don’t want to talk about the fact that their kids are struggling.
“And, what about a level playing field for families who don’t have those extra bucks?”