“Doesn’t need numbers”. Teachers and families protest changes in special education staff at Seattle schools

Educators and parents of students with disabilities oppose Seattle Public Schools’ plan to cut special education staff in some schools almost two months after the start of the school year. They say the district’s plans are shortsighted and will jeopardize the emotional, physical and academic well-being of an already vulnerable student body.

They also argue that the district has failed to adequately communicate about these changes with affected families and educators, or to consider their contribution.

Citing the drop in enrollment, Seattle Public Schools informed its special education staff by email on October 20 that some of them would be removed from their schools but would remain employed by the district, as part of routine adjustments. fall staff. Since the 2019-2020 school year, enrollment in the district has fallen by approximately 3,440 students.

The district told KUOW that a total of 26 special education positions had been “adjusted” based on enrollment, but only 15 staff would be reassigned to different schools. These changes are expected to take effect on November 1.

Dozens of educators and families protested the change in staff at a rally on Wednesday afternoon, held outside Seattle Public School Headquarters. The slogan “no need for numbers” adorned several signs, emphasizing the principle of keeping students’ special education needs, rather than traditional staffing formulas, at the forefront of staffing decisions.

The union representing the district’s educators, the Seattle Education Association, says district officials breached their contractual obligation to involve educators and parents in the decision-making process for such staff changes.

“Don’t send us [enrollment] numbers, ”said Uti Hawkins, vice president of the Seattle Education Association. “Come and discuss if your numbers meet the needs of the students and try to exceed the minimum of service. “

Janis White, who heads the Seattle Special Education PTSA, said families had been excluded from the Seattle Public Schools Special Education Task Force until recently.

“The task force is where the data underlying these types of staffing decisions is meant to be shared and discussed,” White said.

Joana Pio, a stay-at-home mom, has a third-grade son at Highland Park Elementary who is in a social and emotional learning class, a division of the district’s special education services. She worries about how students like her son will fare in social and emotional learning classes with more students and fewer staff.

“He relies a lot on having an adult help him refocus,” Pio said. “When there are students who are not listening or creating chaos in the classroom, it makes him recoil.”

While many students – especially those with a disability – struggled to stay afloat during distance learning, Pio said her son thrived at home where distractions were limited and where she could. be more active. But at the end of that school year, he told her he wanted to go back in person.

“One of the main reasons he wanted to go back was because of the [social and emotional learning] team, which includes two of the staff who are now going to be transferred to different schools, ”said Pio, adding that she would have kept her son at home had she known that sudden disruptions to her program would occur.

For her son, the anticipation of losing part of his teaching team alone was distressing, she said.

“We understand the importance for him of making friends and being social. But at the same time … how much emotional stress is it really going to cause? Pio said.

In addition to her concerns about staff changes, Pio said she felt left in the dark by district officials, who initially left communication about the changes in the hands of individual schools. Pio discovered the staff adjustments by his son’s teacher.

“Frankly, to me it just felt very sneaky the way the district did it,” she said. Pio said she only received communication from district officials regarding staff changes after outraged parents started writing to them.

The news of the staff changes has also hit special education staff hard, who say they are doing their best to support students – many of whom fell several levels behind during Covid – through their own pandemic exhaustion and their heavy workloads.

“It’s already been a crazy year with teachers missing their breaks,” said an elementary-level social and emotional learning teacher. “This is the worst year I have ever taught and I thought the remote was bad.”

The teacher, who spoke to KUOW on condition of anonymity, citing concerns about retaliation, works with students who tend to act behaviorally – including self-harm, harming others and “looting” the classrooms.

“It’s intense and there is very little support,” they said. “You have to have a certain type of personality and be able to let things flow outside of you, or you won’t do well in this area. You have to do a lot of de-escalation training.

The teacher also pointed out the wider shortage of specialized educators in Washington State, noting that it might be difficult to reassign classroom staff later if staff decide to leave the district altogether.

They added that as more children are identified as having significant behavioral needs throughout a school year, social and emotional learning classrooms often thrive. Elementary schools affected by recent staffing adjustments will be forced to combine all grade levels into a single social and emotional learning class, instead of having separate classrooms for grades K-2 and 3-5 respectively. , they said.

“It’s not safe, nor is it developmentally appropriate for kindergartens and first graders to be in a classroom with fifth graders.”

In a statement sent Wednesday, district officials wrote: “The SPS recognizes that relocations of education personnel can disrupt students, families, staff and the school community. For this reason, SPS will provide support throughout the transition. These staff adjustments are made for the sole purpose of meeting the unmet needs of students with IEP (Individual Education Program). “

The statement goes on to say that the district currently employs 74 full-time special education staff, “more than what is needed to meet the needs of the students.” But, the statement continues, “there are classrooms where students with IEP experience an unacceptable student-teacher ratio as high as 54: 1. SPS staff adjustments recognize the need to reallocate resources to better meet demands.” student needs.

In addition to concerns about the immediate effects of staffing adjustments, another special education teacher highlighted the potential for increased enrollment as young children become eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations.

The teacher, who also spoke to KUOW on condition of anonymity, said the displacement of special education staff was particularly inequitable, given other student demographics – such as those in general education classes or in the middle school. highly competent district program – is unlikely to be affected to the same extent by personnel adjustments.

“These are kids with families who have trauma and can’t always fight back,” she said.

As for his colleague, they said they have received several job offers in other districts they are considering following the staffing adjustments.

“I am really about to quit smoking,” they said. “But I love my students, I love my team, I love my principal, and I love the families I work with.”

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