Project Milwaukee
5:34 pm
Wed June 2, 2010

The Challenges of Special Education

Project Milwaukee is underway this week on WUWM. We’re examining the barriers that block some students in Milwaukee Public Schools from achieving at a higher level. Today, we report on the growing number of MPS children facing learning, behavioral and physical challenges. As Erin Toner reports, the district has been fighting a lawsuit that claims MPS has failed such students, while the district insists it is making progress.

An area at Gaenslen School where special education teachers work with students.
An area at Gaenslen School where special education teachers work with students.

Walk into any public school in Milwaukee, and you’ll find streams of instruction flowing in some classrooms. It’s called inclusion. In this third-grade class at Gaenslen School, the teacher is working with the kids on spelling. In the back, a special education teacher is adapting the lesson for blond-haired Patrick.

“You can see that he has difficulty writing, or takes a very long time, so I scribe for him. But he did his work. He told me what to write.”

Because of Patrick’s learning challenges, Special Ed Teacher Renee Ludwig works with him three times a week.

“Sometimes we have to shorten his assignments because the main thing is for him to understand the concept and not always do the same amount of work,” Ludwig says.

It’s becoming more common to see pairings like Renee and Patrick in Milwaukee Public Schools. One big reason for the increase, according to MPS Special Education Director Pat Yahle, is the Parental School Choice Program. It uses tax money that would have gone to the district, to pay the tuition of thousands of low-income children who’d rather attend private schools. But Yahle says choice schools are not required and often cannot serve students with disabilities, so most attend MPS.

“There’s an increase of from 200 to 500 every year for the past eight years that I’ve been the director,” Yahle says.

Yahle says 18 percent of the district’s students have been identified as needing special ed services. They can range from children who need a nurse to care for them all day, to those who need an alternative setting when taking tests.

“These students get individually tailored educational opportunities. And within a class, a teacher may be working with 15 students or 12 students. So much planning is involved to provide the support for those students,” Yahle says.

But before those services are available, MPS must identify the student as needing special education, and that’s where the school system has gotten into hot water.

About a decade ago, former students filed a class action lawsuit against MPS and the state Department of Public Instruction, alleging they failed for years to identify and serve children with disabilities.

Attorney Jeff Spitzer-Resnick is with Disability Rights Wisconsin, the group that sued. He says many of the former students have been unable to get jobs as adults.

“The problem at MPS has been, always, there are always jewels in the crown at MPS. However, because of a failure of accountability at MPS, there was never an insistence that every single school building do what it’s supposed to do legally and educationally for all children,” Spitzer-Resnick says.

In 2007, a judge ruled against the district and DPI and ordered them to fix the situation. The state responded by hiring Louisiana State University Professor Alan Coulter to create an improvement plan for MPS and monitor its progress. Coulter says the plan strengthens math and literacy instruction for all students and improves the process of identifying kids who need extra help.

“If a system is not efficient and effective in educating a majority of students, there’s a tendency to misidentify or over identify students as having a disability, when in fact, it’s not their disability, it’s a disability of the system to provide a good education,” Coulter says.

Coulter issued his first progress report in March.

“The results have been extraordinarily disappointing,” he says.

Coulter says engaging MPS has been labor intensive and fraught with resistance. That might not be surprising, given the district maintains it’s not subject to the state’s settlement. MPS is also appealing the judge’s order to find and compensate potentially thousands of former students who should have received special education services. The district says that process would be prohibitively expensive.

Instead, Special Ed Director Pat Yahle says MPS is moving forward with its own plans for improving services.

I think the lawsuit encouraged many things. I think we were also moving in those same directions at the same time. I think that a lot of good things have happened in the area of accountability,” Yahle says.

Yahle says schools are now relying more heavily on data – such as test scores and discipline information – to identify students who need alternative types of instruction. MPS is also preparing to roll out a new reading curriculum, geared to make sure students progress at least one grade level every year.

Disability Rights Attorney Jeff Spitzer-Resnick says he’s waiting to see results.

“Show us the test scores. Show us the improved reading. Show us the improved math,” Spitzer-Resnick says.

Tomorrow, WUWM’s Project Milwaukee will report on what MPS teachers say they need to succeed.