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After years of complaints, Detroit public schools lay out plan for special education overhaul

School desks
Flickr user Frank Juarez/Flickr

Michigan is not doing a good job educating children with disabilities. That’s according to a recent letterfrom the U.S. Department of Education.

Michigan was the only state rated as needing federal intervention after failing to meet special education standards.

A few weeks before that letter became public, Detroit Public Schools Community District announced it would be doing a massive overhaul of its special education program.

Koby Levin is a reporter with Chalkbeat Detroit, and he joined Stateside to discuss the changes proposed by the district.

Listen to the full interview above.

Levin says the district decided to make changes to its special education program after receiving dozens of state and federal complaints in recent years.

“Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said that he’d never been in a district with so many complaints when he arrived just over a year ago. He actually requested an audit that would take a look at some of the weaknesses in the system. And we now have the results of that audit,” said Levin. 

There were several key findings from that audit. One was that Detroit’s special needs studentsare disproportionately placed in classrooms that are seperate from their non-disabled peers.

“Research has found that placing students with special needs alongside their other peers is beneficial to them and helps them learn," said Levin. "And it actually doesn’t hurt their non-disabled peers’ test scores.”

Some individual schools were overloaded with special education classes, including one high school where 56 percent of students had special needs. Auditors also discovered that teachers were sometimes giving “unofficial suspensions” and sending children home for bad behavior without recording it as a suspension.

Chalkbeat and the Detroit Parent Network kicked off a listening tour on July 28 where they asked parents of children with special needs to share their stories.

Dorothea Nicholson
Credit Koby Levin
Dorothea Nicholson told Chalkbeat Detroit about her problems with the city's special education.

Dorothea Nicholson was one of the parents at the event. 

“The teachers, they were not knowledgeable about my daughter’s situation, so accessing just a curriculum itself was a challenge,” she said at last Tuesday's event. “Just for my daughter to be able to read, we learned that she had a nonverbal learning disability, but no one wanted to hear that. Even having her to have access to extracurricular activities, go on field trips, we were denied a lot of that, also.”

Levin said he heard parents complain of a lack of psychologists, as well parents feeling shamed by district staff about their child's disabilities.

Now, the district is planning to make reforms. One of the changes? Updating the term “special education” to “exceptional student education.”

Levin says other important reforms include building trust with parents, providing additional training for teachers and staff, and increasing the number of students with special needs who attend class with their same-age peers.

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Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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