Special Needs, Special Response
It's Wednesday afternoon at Forest Grove High School. Brad Bafaro '80, M.S. '86, walks down long, pink linoleum hallways shiny with wax. Suddenly, as if someone has opened a human floodgate, the halls are jammed with students, moving in all directions and all seemingly talking at once.
There are so many T-shirts, sweats, and tennis shoes in the boisterous throng the students could be an ad for an athletic apparel company. They may all look similar, but in addition to increasing numbers of Latino students, another key demographic is growing: students with special needs. According to a recent article in The Oregonian, nearly 80,000 Oregon children between birth and age 21 have disabilities, an increase of 750 over last year. The totals include a 13 percent rise in autism, a brain disorder that affects communication and social skills. In addition, autistic student numbers statewide have grown by 67 percent in the past five years.
No one knows for certain what's behind the increases. Some say better reporting and diagnosis. Others suspect environmental factors.
Either way, Bafaro, the Forest Grove School District director of special education and officials like him have their work cut out for them. By law, special needs students are no longer systematically excluded from the regular student body, a right won during the social reform movements of the 1960s and 70s. However, the federal government has never made good on its pledge to fund 40 percent of the costs of special education. The shortfall is made up by state or local governments or not at all. In Oregon, the federal government pays just 19 percent of the $800 million the state spends each year on special education, with the average cost per student at $11,000, according to The Oregonian.
Bafaro deftly navigates the halls as the student crowd thins. The corridors quiet as people find their way to break or class. Students with disabilities are sprinkled throughout the high school's regular classes. In addition, students get instruction and assistance based on their particular circumstance. In one small side room, for instance, a student receives one-on-one attention from a speech therapist. In a larger classroom, students with a mix of disabilities work on writing compositions. In another room, a class called World of Work has about 20 students in attendance. These students, ranging in age from 18 to 21, receive instruction on basic life skills such as everyday math, job interview skills, and resume writing. Called the Youth Transition Project, classes are aimed at young people who continue to need help beyond the traditional high school years.
"Ten years ago these (Transitions) programs didn't exist," said Bafaro. "Now we connect them with the community and help them get jobs." Students work in a variety of occupations including landscaping, food service, and office assistance.
Bafaro, an adjunct professor of exercise science at Pacific, also oversees the University's component of Transitions. While not enrolled in the University, the students eat in the University Center, exercise in the Pacific Athletic Center, and attend classes daily in Scott Hall. Most also live nearby. The idea is for the students to be around others their age while they learn to live independently. The three-year-old project was recently named outstanding program of the year by the Oregon Association for Vocational Special Needs Personnel.
Hosting Transitions is just one of several ways the University has taken quiet leadership in the region's special education community. Most of Pacific's health professions degree programs, including occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychology, optometry, and soon dental health science, include instruction in working with people with disabilities. In addition, undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences can earn a disability studies minor, a curriculum that includes a unique mix of art, writing, history, psychology, and special education courses. Humanities Professor Tim Thompson and physical therapy Professors Nancy Cicirello and John Medeiros lead the minor, with faculty from several other departments also participating.
Pacific has also seen a tripling of students with a range of special needs enrolled in the University since 1999, resulting in expansion of Student Life's Learning Support Services program.
One of the largest impacts the University has on the field, though, is through its master of arts in special education program in the College of Education. Alarmed at both the rise in special needs students and the shortage of qualified special education teachers, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Willard Kniep and Yvonne Katz, Pacific Board of Trustees member and former superintendent of Beaverton schools, worked with Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Forest Grove school officials to design a new master's program.
Pacific College of Education Professor Chris Macfarlane has been director of the program, called Alternative Pathways to Teaching Special Education (APT/SPED), since its beginning in 2000. The program enrolls students with bachelor's degrees, most often people who are already working in the field. They are led through a 17-month intensive curriculum which includes two rounds of summer classes on such basics as special education law, disabilities characteristics, and how to supervise and manage a special education classroom. Teacher candidates also spend an entire school year in charge of classes with extensive support from Pacific and the local school district as part of an initial licensure in special education and completion of a master of arts in teaching (M.A.T.) degree.
"One of the things I'm most proud of," said Macfarlane, "is we have consistently provided a steady stream of teachers" to local districts. The program graduates about 25 a year, she said, some 125 since it began. About five to seven graduates join the Hillsboro School District each year. Seven have joined the St. Helens (Ore.) School District, with four in nearby Banks. In addition, numerous Pacific College of Arts and Sciences graduates work as special education teachers, aides, and assistants across the country.
For Macfarlane, special education isn't just a vocation; it's a calling that goes back to her days as a public school teacher in Iowa. Her Carnegie Hall office walls are lined with artwork by or about people with disabilities. In one corner, an old wicker and wood wheelchair serves as a visitor's seat - and a reminder of days when the disability was less accepted.
"Kids with disabilities must have an opportunity to interact daily with kids without disabilities," she said. "We have to recognize that we are a pluralistic society and all kids can learn and be educated."
Now that an entire generation of society has experienced "mainstreaming" of special education students, Macfarlane said she sees greater acceptance overall. Television shows such as "Life Goes On," which featured an actor with Down syndrome and movies like "Mask" and "Rainman" have raised public awareness of people with disabilities, she said. "My favorite, though, is the 'For Better or For Worse' cartoon strip. Lynn Johnston has portrayed a fifth grade teacher in a wheelchair and over the past year has incorporated a character, Shannon, into the strip. Shannon is based on her niece, who has Down syndrome. She aptly describes school-based situations that include the youngest daughter, April. It's right on target."
Even with progress, many challenges remain, said Macfarlane. Funding for all of education remains a burning issue, not just in special education. Special needs kids are receiving better acceptance and instruction, but still face a tough time finding jobs upon graduation. Although Pacific's APT/SPED graduates have made a big difference, especially in small districts, the supply of fully qualified teachers lags behind demand, especially with student numbers rising.
In addition, said Edward Kame'enui '70, recently appointed the first commissioner for special education research in the U.S. Department of Education, "Education is a very immature social science. It is immature in terms of the lack of solid scientific rigor to determine what works. We have a lot of work to do and a long way to go."
Even in areas like reading where there is a lot of research, he said, there is often rancorous debate on the best methods. "People argue about whether or not to learn the alphabet (as opposed to whole words)."
"There is certainly debate in the field," acknowledged Macfarlane, who added that guidelines exist from the National Council for Exceptional Children and Oregon's Teacher Standards and Practices Commission. Still, colleges and universities tend to do what they think best based on observation and experience, she said. "One of the things we're trying to do at Pacific is provide the data and identify critical pieces of the curriculum for what is in fact the most effective" approach. Teaching teachers, like most anything else, is "a work in progress," she said.
One of special education's greatest challenges is the work itself. It's tough, demanding, sad, and heartwarming all at once. As a result, the field suffers from high burnout rates. Special kids require special teachers, said Macfarlane. Special education teachers need to be patient, goal-oriented, and organized. They need to be ready to deal with lots of paperwork. And, she said: "You really, really have to like kids. You have to have a sense of humor and love of humanity, because they will hit you and spit on you as well as love you."
Students in Pacific's professional occupational therapy (OT) master's program, like their College of Education colleagues, also receive extensive "real life" experience in the field through practicums, internships, and accredited fieldwork. Because OT professionals help people with disabilities or injuries live the fullest possible lives, students need to be well versed in both pediatric and adult disability, said OT Professor Sandra Pelham-Foster.
"Initially, when a student graduates from this school they graduate as a generalist, with skills to work in multiple settings," said Pelham-Foster. For instance, all students receive experience and instruction in the voluminous documentation the field requires. Students also learn how to work with different types of special education specialists, such as psychologists and aides. Along the way, a student or occupational therapist may develop areas of specialty such as assistive technology (the use of computers, switches or computer-aided devices). While in school, though, Pacific's OT students learn about the range of disabilities, and how children and adults function, both mentally and physically. "It's the difference between the education model and the medical model," said Pelham-Foster, "because we straddle both, we are in a unique position to understand both."
"Understanding" is a key to success for any endeavor, but is especially true for special education and its myriad challenges. Bafaro, who "grew up on campus" trailing his father, the late Chuck Bafaro, a teacher and head baseball coach at Pacific for 31 years, has worked in special education for 25 years. "I like a challenge," he said, "and it definitely was a challenge to create successful experiences for kids who haven't had a lot of successes. (Previously) kids with special needs were always isolated away from the mainstream. It didn't feel right. My philosophy has been to connect kids with their community and educational system based on what they can do, not what they can't do."
Other Pacific graduates, while also acknowledging the challenges, say it is the kids themselves that keep them returning to class. Said Jill Hertel '98, M.A.T '03, a special education teacher in the Forest Grove district, "They are some of the most courageous, inspiring people I have ever met. They overcome obstacles each and every day, often with a smile."
Jennifer Hadley-White '96, a teacher's aide in special education in Grapeville, Texas, said, "Having worked in the corporate world of advertising, making great money, I can honestly say it doesn't compare with the precious moment when a child figures something out on his or her own for the first time. Being able to share that means more to me than a successful advertising event ever did. I love to come home each day knowing that what I did truly mattered."