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Seattle Grappling With Long-Running Problems in Special Education System

Last month, Zakiyyah McWilliams, the director of special education in for Seattle Public Schools, was placed on paid leave after about a year on the job. The interim leader who is replacing her is the ninth person to oversee special education in the district over the past five years;—a statistic that offers just a snapshot of the dysfunction that has roiled the special education program in the 52,000-student district.

John Higgins, an education reporter for the Seattle Times, outlined the long-running problems in an article published Sept. 1, two days before classes are set to start in the district. Those problems include data systems that don't allow staff members to see how many of the district's 7,000 special education students attend school on a given day; communication problems between central office staff and schools; lack of professional development for school personnel; and lack of access to a free and appropriate education for students with disabilities, as required under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. From the article:

Seattle risks losing about $12 million annually in federal funds unless it fixes problems that include failures to update student learning plans, deliver services outlined in those plans and provide services consistently from school to school.

While McWilliams and her staff have made some gains in the timeliness and quality of student learning plans and evaluations, they weren't able to meet the state's June 30 deadline to have the full improvement plan in place.

Even the district's moves to address its shortcomings have stumbled: Seattle brought in a consulting group earlier this year to provide the school system a roadmap for special education improvement. The report from the TIERS Group, released in June, concluded that the district was in need of "urgent, substantial and significant improvement in the structure and delivery of services to students with disabilities and their families" and outlined several changes it believed were necessary. But the $150,000 contract to the TIERS Group is now under investigation because it might have been improperly awarded, which was the impetus for placing McWilliams on paid leave. 

While Seattle's federal special education funding is in jeopardy, also at risk is the education of thousands of its students. As Higgins writes, "Parents want more than basic competence, however. They want more attention paid to boosting academics, raising graduation rates and improving the chances that their children can live independently once they leave school."


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