Over the past few months, Humboldt High teacher Rachel Wannarka started noticing a lot of kids being transferred to her special education math class after failing out of regular math.
While regular math takes place daily, special ed math is every other day, taught at a level several grades lower than what many of these students were used to. Wannarka knew the kids were smart enough to succeed in the mainstream class, so she started looking for an explanation why they couldn’t keep up.
Special ed students all have unique learning disabilities – autism, cognitive difficulties, emotional behavioral disorders. But federal law stresses students with disabilities are entitled to be taught alongside students without them. It’s the school’s job to provide the extra support to make that possible.
That’s why all special ed students have a custom Individualized Education Program (IEP), a legal document that spells out when an aide is needed at their side to help them focus, get their work done, and make it through the day without incident.
Suspecting that Humboldt wasn’t giving students the extra support they needed, Wannarka cross-referenced students’ IEPs with staff schedules. She found that dozens of kids weren’t getting the time with aides that the law requires.
As a result, they’re failing out of the less restrictive mainstream classes and squandering their potential in special ed classes, where they just keep falling further behind, says Wannarka.
“If this happens in sixth grade, what it means is this kid is not going to be able to take 12th grade math six years later,” she says. “But this isn’t a random kid. There are, today, right now, 60 kids in Humboldt that this is happening to.”
That’s about one-third of the school's special education students. And Humboldt isn't alone, according to teachers who attended a meeting with St. Paul Public Schools’ special education supervisor Niceta Thomas.
Another teacher who was present at the meeting, but declined to be named for fear of retaliation, said that in addition to Humboldt, Thomas confirmed Harding and Washington High Schools were also out of compliance with federal law.
Teachers asked whether they should tell parents that their kids’ needs weren’t being met. Thomas instructed them to be honest, this teacher said.
The meeting haunted her, the teacher said. While students with mild disabilities weren’t passing their classes, those with more severe challenges were getting into fights.
“I was literally stunned that [Thomas] was like, 'Three of our biggest high schools are violating federal law.' I was like, ‘Jesus, what is happening here?’” Wannarka says.
“This is systematic. I can tell you about one kid that I care about a lot, he is a good kid, he is a smart kid, he wants good things for his life. If he had these services, it’s likely he would be OK now. But he failed everything first semester.… We’ve just foreclosed his future.”
Of the 12 special ed teachers that Humboldt’s supposed to have, two are on long-term leave and another recently quit. Even if all positions were properly filled, Wannarka believes Humboldt would still not have enough to honor every IEP. She says the district needs to honestly recalculate its allocation of special education staff.
District spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey declined to allow interviews with Thomas and Humboldt Principal Mike Sodomka on Monday, saying that administrators were still wrapping up contract negotiations.
Stewart Downey provided a statement:
"Saint Paul Public Schools has been actively recruiting teaching assistants for its programs all year. In the last two years, approximately 25 teaching assistants moved into other positions within the district to advance their careers in education.
"At the same time, the job market in the Twin Cities has been very tight -- making it challenging to fill these openings. The district is strongly recruiting candidates for these positions through marketing, job fairs, and referrals. When the SPPS' minimum wage for teaching assistants increases to $15 per hour next school year, we hope to attract more applicants."
St. Paul Public Schools and the teachers union reached a contract deal early Monday morning and jointly announced that teachers will not go on strike Tuesday as planned.