Focusing on Racial Equity for Students with Disabilities
At the April 12, 2018 Focus on Achievement study session, the Board of Education heard about the changes the Student Equity and Opportunity (SEO) team is focusing on to better serve our students, in particular our students of color with disabilities.
Associate Chief of SEO Dr. Eldridge Greer presented data that influenced the district’s decisions to make the changes to better serve students. Read the full presentation here.
Students of Color with Disabilities
Students of color with disabilities are performing at significantly lower levels than white students with disabilities. Only 2.4% of African-American students with disabilities and 2.2% of Latino students with disabilities met expectations in English Language Arts based on CMAS (Colorado Measures of Academic Success) results. This is a sharp contrast to 21% of white students with disabilities who met expectations.
“This is emotionally devastating for me,” said Greer. “When we pull back the curtain, the most stark variable in our students’ success is still race. This was a strong call to action for us to make change.”
Historic Wave of Student Safety, Mental Health Concerns
Greer explained that schools across the country have experienced an unprecedented wave of escalated student safety concerns. Threat assessments, suicide risk reviews, and harassment and discrimination complaints in DPS have virtually doubled in just one year. There have been 785 threat assessments so far this school year: 222 with elementary students and 224 with students with disabilities.
As a result, behavior support and mental health needs in schools have become the focus of many special education professionals — and other educators — often diverting them from a focus on special education instruction. The SEO team is focused on changes to empower special education professionals to focus on the needs of their special education students rather than the behavioral needs of the entire school.
Reorganization in Support of Students
Informed by the data around racial inequities and the increased need for intensive behavioral supports, SEO is embarking on a multi-year strategy to address the need to serve our most vulnerable student populations. Key elements of the strategy include:
“We aren’t going in a different direction; we are putting our foot on the gas with the intent to accelerate our response to this problem,” said Greer. “We know these problems have been generations in the making, and we are here humbly to listen to our community and school leaders about how we can work together to do better.”
“I really see this as a re-writing of the narrative for our district. Our special education students have been short changed because those needs are being lumped together with social-emotional, trauma, mental health and other behavioral needs,” said Board Member Happy Haynes. “I appreciate calling out that we should be focused on the instruction of our special ed students and differentiating that from how we address the social-emotional needs of all students.” Haynes noted that board members could support this strategy and simultaneously question whether the district has adequately funded schools to implement it well.
Board Member Lisa Flores said this issue highlights K-12 funding challenges. “We are not only underfunded on a per pupil basis, we are also underfunded to serve our students with special needs,” Flores said. “Some of our colleagues throughout the state are moving to a four day school week because we’ve been forced to do more with less. This is another opportunity to call out that we must fix our state’s funding formula so that we can adequately serve our students.”
Superintendent Tom Boasberg agreed that the state’s funding formula fails to address our students’ needs. However, he reassured board members that, while the SEO team budget has been reduced, there has been no redirection of funds away from schools, and in fact, many schools are receiving additional funding to ensure all schools have at least one full time school psychologist or social worker — in addition to the new behavioral supports that will be available.
Voices from the Field
A panel of school-based staff also convened to discuss the reorganization and other strategies to support students with disabilities, as well as the increasing number of students impacted by trauma and mental health challenges. The panel included:
Muñoz noted that some of the concerns and fears about the reorganization are based on how we ensure equity and access to resources and supports if we move to decentralize our special education team.
“When schools need more resources or supports, schools do reach out and the district does a remarkable job finding a way to provide those supports,” said Dale. “Our leaders are very happy to hear that the behavior team that will come to our schools to support has doubled. We understand that those people will be there for more extended periods of time and train school-based staff on what to do. There is a lot of hope that this team of behavior specialists will be able to address both the immediate needs of children in crisis, but also ongoing training needs — while also allowing special education partners to truly focus on instruction.”