New approach to special ed worries some St. Paul teachers

Combined classroom
Four of the 19 students in this writing class at Obama Elementary are special education students. The St. Paul district hopes special education students test scores will improve if they spend more time in general education classes.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The St. Paul school district has changed its special education program in a big way, moving hundreds of students from separate special education to general education classrooms.

Mainstreaming those students gives them equal access to education, district officials argue. Some teachers, though, worry the plan is hurting kids and putting teachers in danger.

The new effort is focused on children diagnosed with emotional and behavior disorders, known by the shorthand EBD. About two-thirds of St. Paul's 900 EBD students are African-American. No one is sure why, but recent national studies have theorized it's because of inequities in early childhood education, or racial bias in special education referrals.

Whatever the cause, observers say students segregated in special ed classes aren't likely to do as well academically as those in mainstream classes. That's led St. Paul to rethink which students are sent to special education.

"This year we're trying to get the kids in mainstream as much as possible, and one of the ways that we're doing that is putting our resources in the general education classrooms," said Christina Richardson, a special education teacher at St. Paul's Obama Elementary.

Christina Richardson, special education teacher
Christina Richardson is a special education teacher at Obama Elementary in St. Paul. Richardson is co-teaching in general education classrooms as the St. Paul district works to move more special education students, and teachers, into mainstream classes.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Four of the 19 kids in her fifth-grade writing class are special education students. In years past, they would have spent most if not all of their day in a separate learning center -- essentially a special education school within the school. Now, the kids and their teacher integrate into mainstream classrooms.

"We tend to exclude a certain population of our kids. We cannot continue to exclude them from educational opportunities that they deserve," said Monroe Walker, Obama Elementary's assistant principal.

Walker hopes special education students will improve their test scores if they face the higher expectations of a general education classroom.

The moves are working, district officials say.

"The kids are doing better," Assistant St. Paul Superintendent Elizabeth Keenan said. "They're getting more opportunities and they're learning and they're participating academically where we never had academic expectations for these kids we only had the behavioral expectations."

Still, the overall approach and how it's playing out in schools worries some teachers. Some special education teachers say their students are overwhelmed and aren't getting the intense help they need.

Mary Catherine Ricker, the head of St. Paul's teachers union, has heard from dozens of concerned teachers since the beginning of the school year. Mainstream classroom teachers have reported more disruptions caused by special education students struggling to adjust. A few mainstream teachers have been injured in incidents, though it's difficult to get a count because teachers don't always report injuries, she added.

District officials say incident reports are down this year compared to last year, although they're not able to offer specific numbers.

Teachers support efforts to help special education students spend more time in the classroom but want school leaders to do a better job identifying students who should be removed from the classroom, Ricker said.

Keenan says the district is working on it. Officials with the teachers union and the St. Paul district plan to meet later this month to discuss the new approach to special education and whether any changes should be made.

Keenan estimates five to 10 percent of students are causing many of the problems.

"What I'm looking at is how we get better," she said. "This is our transitioning time that we can keep working on and getting better."

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