Families of Oregon students with disabilities search for solutions in face of insufficient academic support
Being back in school in-person is more effective for most students than the days of distance learning. But many students with disabilities missed out even more when they were at home. And that time at home gave parents a chance to see what their children were not learning — and take matters into their own hands.
This is the second story in a series about the state of special education in Oregon, including how students and educators are faring after years of pandemic disruptions. You can read the first story here.
Even before the pandemic, Jennifer Brooks had submitted six complaints to the Lake Oswego School District on behalf of her son, Hudson.
Hudson was in the middle of third grade in March 2020, when state leaders closed classrooms and sent students home to learn on laptops in response to COVID-19.
Hudson has dyslexia and dysgraphia, learning disabilities that can make reading and writing difficult. He qualifies for special education services through an individualized education plan he’s had since second grade.
When Hudson had to shift to learning online, that extra support went online too, through a program called Lexia Core5. Brooks said it was not working for her son.
“He’s exhausted from staring at the screen and this is in addition to his full day of school,” Brooks recalled sharing with the school district.
By January 2022, back in-person, Brooks could see her son falling further behind his peers in fifth grade. She pulled Hudson out of school for tutoring and hoped his reading skills would improve before middle school.
The pandemic gave parents like Brooks a front row seat to their child’s education. For some families, the pandemic, the extended period that Oregon schools spent in distance learning and the rocky return to in-person school afterwards exposed inadequacies in the support some students with disabilities receive. Parents and educators are facing the potential for academic and developmental setbacks that may hinder progress for children with disabilities for years to come.
In Lake Oswego, school officials say online programs used in special education are “based on specific student needs.” They note many teachers have received training in a dyslexia-related program called LETRS.
But the software programs and training efforts weren’t moving quickly enough for parents like Brooks, with concerns for their children’s learning.
Now a sixth grader at Lakeridge Middle School, Hudson continues to receive outside tutoring separate from the school district.
“I have asked [the school district] to not provide any literacy intervention for reading,” Brooks said. “They don’t know how to do it.”
“He doesn’t trust them to be honest, he doesn’t really trust the school after all these years … and knowing that what they have him do doesn’t help him and then they don’t listen to that.”
Based on discussions with parents and educators in other parts of Oregon, the challenges in Lake Oswego — an affluent school district with fewer students in special education than the state average — are not unique.
At the same time, reading is having a moment. Parents and advocates across the country are speaking out about what they see as inadequate approaches to teach children to read. Oregon advocates and teachers want to see school districts spend federal COVID-19 relief funds on phonics-based reading programs. West Linn-Wilsonville parents have been advocating for more support and a new curriculum at school board meetings. Improved reading for Black students has become a focus of the NAACP nationally as a new podcast shares the story of “how teaching kids to read went so wrong.”
Hanging in the balance are students with specific learning challenges, like reading. Parents of students like Hudson and Greyson Chavez, a middle schooler in Beaverton, are pushing solutions before it’s too late.
Feeling frustrated at school and learning to read at home
If students don’t get what they need in early grades, they don’t develop those foundational skills that are necessary throughout school and life after school. Reading is an essential skill for students to build so they can learn complex subjects as they get older.
In class, Greyson, an eighth grader at Mountain View Middle School in Beaverton, didn’t like reading out loud. He’d get nervous that he might stumble on words, or mess up in front of his peers.
“It made me feel like something’s wrong, that maybe I just wasn’t trying hard enough, or wasn’t smart,” Greyson said.
Like Hudson, Greyson has dyslexia. Also similar to Hudson, Greyson and his mom, Kim Harley, said the support he received through the special education department at his school wasn’t working. Harley hired a tutor and found other materials so her son can learn.
“The help at home is definitely a lot better than the help at school,” Greyson said. “The help at school is … less of teaching the kids how to read or how to do math and more of putting them in front of a computer screen for a couple of hours.”
Not every child with dyslexia qualifies for special education support. They can qualify for services if they are determined to have a “specific learning disability” potentially based on weak academic performance in subjects such as reading and writing.
Like many parents across the country, Harley said the pandemic gave her an in-depth look at Greyson’s educational experience. She watched him struggle with math, reading and writing.
On reading tests in seventh grade, last year, Harley found that her son’s reading level had actually regressed from where he was in third grade. So she spent $300 on Barton reading system materials, a phonics-based program that uses little multi-colored tiles to help students differentiate between sounds. Last September, Harley had Greyson tested again and said he jumped to fourth grade reading level.
“It’s very apparent that he is very capable of learning,” Harley said. “He just was not getting what he needed at school.”
Beaverton officials say parts of their core instruction are phonics-based like the Barton system, and that students who qualify for special education services receive individual help. Similar to Lake Oswego, Beaverton officials add that specific elementary staff are currently receiving LETRS training.
Harley and Hudson’s mom, Jennifer Brooks, are part of a large number of parents and advocates who disagree with the reading interventions provided by their districts.
Greyson said that while his writing skills have improved, he’s still working on reading.
“I still don’t know if I’m as confident with reading anymore,” Greyson said. “I don’t like to read, I don’t read books, but I think I’ve gotten better with it. I can read a lot harder words now, that’s good.”
The help Harley is paying for — the tutor and the Barton system — are ultimately helping Grayson complete assignments and feel successful in eighth grade, including reading-heavy courses like history and social studies.
The tutoring paid off. In January 2023, new test results showed Greyson was reading at grade level.
“He just needs a little bit”
Some students with learning disabilities may only need a few extra minutes of support to find academic success. And not getting that support can compromise both their learning, and their attitude about learning.
Alison Gash’s son has trouble focusing in the classroom environment. He has several conditions — autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and visual processing problems — that make learning different for him.
To succeed, Gash said her son needs extra one-on-one support in math and writing — someone to help break down questions so he can answer them.
“He can do the math, he just can’t decode the instructions,” Gash said.
Her son is in fourth grade at a public school in Portland for high-achieving students. She has asked not to include her son’s name to avoid possible repercussions against him. Gash said the lack of adequate support has left her son with anxiety and negative feelings about his education.
“Time’s running out for him to really be able to see school as a positive experience,” Gash said.
“He comes home from school and says, ‘my brain is broken, I can’t do work’,” Gash recalled. “And I’m like, that’s just heartbreaking because your brain is awesome, we just haven’t found the setting that will allow you to see that.”
She’s been working to get her son an aide at school, but has been told there aren’t resources for him. District officials say there are two paraeducators assigned to the school.
“PPS is committed to serving all students, and will work tirelessly to ensure those requiring specialized services receive support as highlighted in their Individualized Education Plan in an inclusive and caring environment,” PPS officials shared with OPB in response to questions about lack of support for students.
Gash is a political science professor at the University of Oregon, and has worked with the university to make classrooms more accessible for students with various learning needs. She said children need spaces that support how they learn — and it’s different for every student.
“Some kids are fine being at a table with three other kids and having to do work in a classroom with 24 other kids,” Gash said. “A lot of kids aren’t, and for a lot of kids, that kind of space simply will not work for their capacity to learn.”
She said she doesn’t see a space that works for her son at his current school.
“He just needs a little bit,” Gash said. “But even the little bit that he needs, we can’t get.”
If children like hers are going to be in those classrooms, Gash said, they might need an adult in the room to help, whether that’s a paraeducator, or an aide, or a parent volunteer.
Small changes can lead to significant problems
Just as seemingly small supports can make a big difference with students, when a relatively small cut is made to services, it can cause significant problems.
At the end of October, special education staff at Kelly Elementary School in Southeast Portland were notified that their staffing was being cut from 1.5 to 1.0 — a loss of the equivalent of one part-time teacher. PPS was requiring a full-time staff member to split their time between Kelly and Lent Elementary a little over a mile away, effectively reducing support at Kelly.
That staffing cut had a ripple effect that interrupted student learning. Staff said they were unable to provide specially designed instruction, required by students’ individualized education plans. According to a letter from Kelly staff shared with OPB, as a result of the staffing change, every student with an IEP was “missing core instruction,” and that some students were missing “teacher-led recess to receive instruction.”
The letter stated that some students are now in the school’s Learning Center for over two hours to meet their required IEP minutes, something Kelly Elementary teacher Rachael Hall called “not developmentally appropriate.”
District officials said the October staffing change was based on the number of students served. Hall is also the parent of a student with disabilities, a middle schooler at Kellogg, another school in Southeast Portland. Speaking generally, Hall said resources are going to students most in need — including students who may act out physically — but that leaves every student underserved.
“The reason this — attending to these kids with these behavioral needs — is so important is because they’re kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” Hall said. “If their needs are not being met, everybody else’s needs are going to start not being met because they are a high priority when someone’s like unsafe to themselves, unsafe to others.”
Research has shown that students need to be in an environment where they feel safe in order to learn.
Parent and school volunteer Jackie Dean sees firsthand the need for more support in her son Jack’s first grade classroom at Kelly.
“I’ll sit next to Jack and I’ll help him with his work … I help Jack, and I try to help the kids that sit around him,” Dean said. “Sometimes some of the other kids start calling, ‘Ms. Jackie!’”
Dean said Jack, who has autism, struggles with getting started on his school work. She remembered helping another student with math — and how the little extra support she was able to provide helped the student progress.
With the change in Kelly’s staffing, Dean said she feels like the connection with the teacher who now works part-time has changed.
“I know she’s stretched so thin,” Dean said.
Dean is concerned about the future of her son and his classmates, and all students who don’t get what they need. She thinks about her husband, who received special education services when he was in school. As an adolescent, he went to juvenile detention and remembers someone there telling him that students who needed special education support — but didn’t get it — ended up incarcerated.
She worries about Jack and his classmates.
“Jack was so successful last year at school,” Dean said, while acknowledging kindergarten wasn’t perfect. Her concerns are bigger now.
“This year, there’s so many problems — it’s just — my first grader, I’m worried he’s going to end up in jail someday.”
Makeup time required for some students — but not always happening, or wanted
A state emergency rule enacted in 2021 ordered school districts to review student plans to determine who was eligible for COVID-19 recovery services, to make up for time lost when students were at home during the pandemic.
That rule required schools to “consider” recovery services for students receiving special education support “based on the unique needs that arise from their disability due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.” But the state hasn’t been tracking how many of those 78,716 students were eligible or have received recovery services. One option for providing those services is putting it off until the summer.
Individual school districts haven’t been consistent in tracking how many students they’re providing support.
In Beaverton, “approximately 25%” of the district’s 4,638 students receiving special education services were eligible and offered recovery services, which range from summer programs and participating in the school’s extended school year program to additional services “during non-instructional times” in the school day.
More than 760 students in the Lake Oswego School District receive special education services. District officials said the number of students who qualified for recovery services varies, though they said 40 students accessed services during the summer.
Under state rules, Oregon districts have until the end of this school year to meet with families, develop recovery services if recommended and outline a plan for when those services will occur.
In Portland, 488 students received services in the summer. District officials estimate 50 students had small group instruction or tutoring outside of summer. That’s out of more than 7,300 students in PPS who receive special education services. District officials did not share how many students were eligible for the services.
Jey Buno, PPS’ interim director of student services, said only a small number of students’ education was “significantly impacted.”
“The focus is on trying to close some of the learning gaps that might have been created due to the pandemic impact,” Buno said.
“It may be additional reading instruction, it may be additional math instruction, it could be a social group-type activity, where you’re part of a club to get some specific instruction on social interactions.”
But it may be difficult for students in Portland and across the state to receive those services. District officials said they served as “many possible students as they could” last summer. A former PPS special education teacher who asked OPB for anonymity out of fear of repercussions said they are concerned about the logistics. The teacher was also worried that directing students into extra classes might feel like schools are “punishing” students.
Daralee Huntley, the parent of a Portland student with disabilities and a paraeducator in the district, agreed that more school — when other students are on summer break — can’t be the only solution, and wouldn’t work for students like her daughter.
“She needs to have that break from school,” Huntley said of recovery services offered for her daughter, Bella. “I didn’t want to put the stress of summer school … to me, that’s not going to help.”
This is the second story in a series on the state of special education. You can read the first story here. Our next story is about what it’s like to be a member of support staff working in special education classrooms.
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