OPB’s series on the state of special education has featured students, parents, and staff members across the Portland area. The series has found that some students with disabilities are missing out on school while staff are stretched thin trying to deal with increased needs.
Education reporter Elizabeth Miller recently spoke with a top staff member at one of Oregon’s largest school districts, Beaverton special education administrator Kelly Raf, about the challenges she sees from the district office.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kelly Raf: Special education is a field that is always growing and evolving. We’re always responding to the increased needs that we’re seeing in our students. We’re responding to what’s happening for our families, in our community. And so I think that hasn’t changed. That’s always been the case. I would say there have been more increased changes and needs over the last three years, but our job is to continually evolve and to individualize what we’re doing for students. And so I would say that’s where we’re at. We’re always looking at how can we serve students in the best way possible, and what do we need to adapt and change to make sure that we’re continuing to do that, and helping the students to make the progress we want to see.
Elizabeth Miller: So from your point of view here at the district office, how is special education going right now? And how does it compare to previous years?
KR: Yeah, I would say that we are definitely seeing increased behavioral and social, emotional and mental health needs for students. While those needs existed before, we’re definitely seeing them at a more pronounced level right now. And staffing is also still a challenge that we’re dealing with. It’s an improvement over earlier in the year, which is great. That recruitment and retention piece is so important and we’re really trying to focus on it, and we’re doing everything that we can to help our staff feel supported and equipped to do their jobs and so really trying to help meet their needs, whether it’s through more targeted professional development, additional professional development — just trying to help people feel supported in their day to day.
EM: When you say, students have higher needs, what does that look like?
KR: I would say we’re seeing more students who are coming in with mental health challenges for sure, and so that can impact them in the classroom in a variety of ways. Sometimes that’s something you don’t necessarily see, but that they’re dealing with internally. It could be some different behaviors you’re seeing in the classroom. It’s really individualized, but I think we’re seeing that more students are needing more than what they have previously. We have more students trying to access services outside of school through private providers and things like that. That’s been really challenging for families as well to navigate.
EM: So when it comes to how those higher needs translate to staffing, what kind of staffing changes have needed to be made?
KR: I would say that we’ve definitely evaluated our paraeducator staffing and seeing where more needs are going to be. Some of the vacancies that we have now are really from mid-year additions that we’ve made into programs and classrooms to support those increased needs for students that maybe previously didn’t need that higher level of support.
EM: What do special education departments need, whether it’s from the state, from the local level or even nationally?
KR: I think continued advocacy for increased funding and supports for students is so important. Some of those supports — we’ve really seen a need for increased placements for students who require the highest level of care and more county mental health services is critical as well. Those are two things that we’re really seeing stress on that system and then a higher need. So we would love to welcome state legislators and ODE [Oregon Department of Education] staff to come and experience what that student and teacher day looks like in a larger district like Beaverton. We feel it will be really beneficial for them to see and hear and experience what things look like here in a district. I think the folks that determine budgets and make policy decisions should have a greater understanding of how their decisions impact our students who need the most support.
EM: What does the future of special education look like to you? Does it feel like it’s a crisis at all — and how do we get out of that?
KR: I don’t know how we would define a crisis, but I think it’s definitely a challenge. You know, in terms of staffing, I think things seem like they’re — over the last year or so — seem to be slowly kind of settling in. I feel like we’re making gains because when I look at kind of unfilled positions and things like that, we are making progress. We do have new contracts with our employee groups, which I think is really helpful when it comes to recruiting and retaining new staff. So I think we’re making headway and so I’m really excited for this upcoming hiring season. We’ve already hosted two open houses and already started screening candidates. I’m getting some amazing new staff in here for next year, so I feel like we’re making progress. When it comes to supporting students with disabilities or any students who are struggling, it really is that global perspective. We need more than just our schools. We need county support, state support to really wrap around students who need a lot. And so I think, as we can start to supplement and support those areas too, I think all of our students and families will be better off.