Big changes coming for special ed students in Tacoma

TACOMA-- It’s science time in Mrs. Habersetzer’s fifth-grade class at Skyline Elementary School in Tacoma. Today, the kids are seeing how many passengers can fit in a boat without it sinking, using paper cups and pennies.

There are 23 students in the class, three of them with special needs.

“I have two that have Cerebral palsy and are at a second- or third-grade level and then another student at a fourth-grade level,” said Susan Habersetzer.

They learn everything the rest of the students do, with the help of a para-educator. It’s a model Tacoma Public Schools is expanding district wide.

“Right now we have a lot of segregation of students with disabilities.  We have students traveling across town to schools and are spending the majority of their day in self-contained classrooms with just kids with disabilities,” said Jennifer Traufler, executive director of Student Services.

The district wants to keep special education students in neighborhood schools. Now, more than 40 percent are bused to another part of the city. The district is also going to train all regular teachers so they can integrate special needs students into their classrooms.

“Some parents are very afraid what will this mean for my child and other parents think it’s about time,” Traufler said.

The changes come after a review from the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative in Massachusetts. Tacoma Public Schools says it reached out to them after being disappointed with the 65 percent graduation rate among its 3,000 special education students in the district. The group recommended 18 changes and implementing them all could take up to five years.

In preschool, a pilot program at McCarver Elementary on Hilltop will have a 50/50 mix of regular and special needs students. That model could expand district wide if successful. In elementary, middle and high school, classes might look a lot like Habersetzer’s. She has taught this inclusive style for years and feels it’s beneficial for the entire class.

“It benefits both kids.  I think the general population because they see they have a sense of caring and helpfulness and the other students have someone to ask for help.  It is a feeling of a family and everyone is there to help each other,” said Habersetzer.

Teacher training will begin this summer. The district is also hiring four special education instructional coaches and three new teachers.