Teachers have described Belle Jackson as a light in their classrooms; a student who’s proud of her accomplishments and who makes sure to greet everyone with a smile.
Belle, 10, has DiGeorge syndrome — a developmental disorder that requires her to receive several special education services to help her with anything from speech pathology to remembering basic routines such as washing her hands or getting to class.
She and her family — her adoptive parents, Bryant and Stephanie James, and twin sister, Beth — moved to Vancouver in July from Fort Myers, Fla. At her old school there, Belle had what’s called an Individual Education Program, or IEP, which sets the amount of time she spends each day in a general education classroom and identifies specific goals for her education based on expert evaluations.
In the few weeks she’s been a student at Columbia Valley Elementary School in Evergreen Public Schools, however, Belle’s parents said they learned that her IEP wasn’t being followed.
Belle’s IEP recommended she spend no more than 40 percent of her day in a general education classroom and that she have a one-on-one paraeducator assist her throughout the day. But on Belle’s first day at Columbia Valley, her parents said she spent nearly the whole day in the general education classroom. Although the classmates were her age, DiGeorge causes Belle’s cognitive level to be that of a kindergartner in an academic setting. Without a one-on-one paraeducator to help her as suggested, Belle’s parents said it’s incredibly difficult for her to learn alongside kids who are in some ways years above her.
“They had her general education percentage set at 60 percent, which was a legal violation of her placement,” James said. “They then put her at exactly 39 percent, which was the bare minimum of what they needed to do. We basically had to defend why our daughter needed more education supports.”
On Thursday, Belle quietly mumbled to herself as she played with modeling clay while home from school — her parents have been wary of sending her back due to their struggle in getting what they feel is the right support for her. Just weeks ago, they said, she was talking clearly and bouncing off the walls with excitement.
“She’s refusing help, she’s being defiant, she’s not happy about anything,” said James, her father. “Not only is she not managing to make progress with her goals, but the school has caused her to actually regress.”
A move toward inclusion
In Evergreen and beyond, Washington schools have made a pivot toward what’s called the Inclusive Schools Model, where special education students are encouraged to spend as much time as possible in general education classrooms.
“(The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) asserts that students receiving special education services are general education students and have a fundamental right to meaningful access to the general education setting,” said Matt Hill, Evergreen’s senior director of special services. “They continue by asserting that students receiving special education services should not have to ‘fit in’ or ‘earn their way’ into general education classrooms.”
Within this model, for example, Belle would be encouraged to spend 39 percent of her day in these general classrooms — the maximum time in a “least restrictive environment” that her IEP allows.
The impetus for the policy change, which Evergreen started adopting in 2020, is a 2018 study from the National Council on Disability. The study ranked Washington 44th in the U.S. in providing opportunities for students receiving special education to meaningfully access academic and social opportunities in general education settings. Washington was identified as perpetuating “two parallel systems of education,” in reference to the divide between special education students and the rest of the student body.
Even still, Hill said the IEP will ultimately determine what’s best for each student.
When a student with an IEP transfers to Evergreen Public Schools, the first step is to reach out to the former school district to obtain copies of the student’s IEP and previous evaluation. Then, Evergreen conducts an evaluation to determine whether the student is eligible to receive special education services in Washington.
“If the team determines that an evaluation is required, they must ensure Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) by delivering comparable services and service the student as indicated on the current IEP during the evaluation process,” Evergreen’s policy reads.
A May evaluation in Florida found that Belle Jackson’s IEP was leading to noticeable improvements in her academic performance. Since August 2021, her reading skills advanced from kindergarten to second-grade level, for example. The evaluation was done while she was a third-grader, meaning despite the improvements she is still below grade level and in the bottom 25 percent of her peers in this category and others.
The evaluation, her parents said, is evidence that this was a model that worked for her. When they showed it to school officials, however, they thought it was ignored. Today, with her routine snapped, Belle struggles to speak coherently. James, her father, said it’s as if the progress made from years they spent working with her had disappeared.
“We were told we were wrong for telling them we wanted these things for our daughter and why she belonged in a general education program,” he said. “But I’ve seen her do more than she’s doing right now. I know what she’s capable of. It’s like we’re back to square one, and now she’s pushing against support.”
In her eight years as a paraeducator in Evergreen, Ellen Townsen said this year has been unlike anything she’s ever seen. Severe staffing shortages have limited her ability to provide one-on-one assistance to students who need it most.
In some cases, Townsen said special education students are going entire days without receiving the assistance required by their IEPs; in others, students are working with paraeducators who haven’t received training in dealing with that specific disability.
“Special ed students are entitled by law to get the help and support they need. And many of them are not getting it,” Townsen said. “According to their IEPs, they are entitled to support. If that’s not being fulfilled, it could be violating their civil rights.”
According to Mindy Troffer-Cooper, the president of Evergreen’s Public School Employees union — which represents an estimated 650 paraeducators in the district, among other classified positions — the district had as many as 300 unfilled paraeducator positions in the 2021-2022 school year. The shortage is not unique. A study from the National Education Association found that there’s as many as 300,000 unfilled educator positions nationwide.
“We don’t mind picking up the slack, but there’s no incentive, there’s no motivation to continue working for the district when (employees) can get something better elsewhere,” Townsen said. “And I don’t mean another school district, but I mean elsewhere in the workforce in general.”
District officials repeatedly acknowledged these staff shortages, but say they are committed to furthering the inclusive school model under state guidelines.
“Regardless of the job shortage that is pervasive across Washington state school districts, Evergreen Public Schools is committed to increasing inclusive practices where students receiving special education services are not segregated in separate settings due to their disability or staffing and have opportunities to meaningfully access and participate in the general education setting, curriculum and learn alongside their typically developing peers,” Hill said.
IEPs hard to enforce
Although the law says conditions of established IEPs are to be followed, families are the only ones who can really do much to hold schools accountable. But they may find themselves at a practical disadvantage.
“When a district doesn’t do what they need to do, a parent has options, but I would say that the deck is stacked in the school district’s favor,” said Diane Wiscarson, a Portland-based special education lawyer who practices in both Oregon and Washington. “Due process is very expensive and takes about a year. Parents have to use their own money but the districts use public money to defend it. There’s a power and resource imbalance there.”
Wiscarson works to represent families who find themselves seeking mediation with a school district over their child’s IEP. In her experience, school districts need to be doing more to retain and attract paraeducators to support theses students, as well as making more classroom teachers aware of the conditions of IEPs.
“We have clients who are supposed to have one-on-one assistants but there’s nobody to hire,” she said. “There’s a lack of professional development, there’s a lack of training.”
When schools press to reevaluate an IEP, Wiscarson said she always asks for evidence that supports that decision. In Belle Jackson’s case, for example, her most recent evaluation showed the conditions of her IEP were actively improving her academic performance.
“I’m picky about data. I need data that shows why a change needs to happen,” Wiscarson said. “If (the district) says to me they’d like to increase the general education time, I say ‘Great, why?’ ”
She encourages families to research their rights and seek help from resources like PAVE — a federally funded agency in Washington that helps families organize IEP meetings and evaluations with their school districts.
Though Belle’s parents said they’re seeking mediation, they don’t envision litigation to be a possible path for them due to the time, money and energy it demands. In the coming weeks, they said they’re looking to speak with a doctor about potentially getting at-home, one-on-one assistance to help their daughter get back on track.
“If she enters adulthood not knowing how to ask for help, she’s going to be in a really bad place. I’m not even sure her adulthood will look like with maximum support,” Bryant James said, with tears welling in his eyes. “So when she’s not getting the support she needs, it’s really scary.”