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A Real Step Backwards

HISD Superintendent Miles Tells Autism Support Teachers to Find a New Job


Cuts to Houston ISD's special education staff effectively ended the operations of an autism services team.

Cuts to Houston ISD's special education staff effectively ended the operations of an autism services team. Screenshot

Houston ISD special education instructors who teach students with autism will return to their classes next week without the support of teachers there to assist them during routine check-ins or reported emergencies.

This comes after the district cut 10 "itinerant teacher" positions, effectively ending an autism services team that primarily helped instructors teaching in Structured Learning Classrooms designated for autistic students.

Many of these team members have more than a decade of experience in special education. They also assisted those who taught in general education and life-skill classrooms if a student struggled. These teachers checked in with their assigned schools every four to six weeks and whenever an incident was reported, according to an HISD teacher who wanted to remain anonymous.

"When I first started, the autism support teachers were my biggest mentors," the teacher said. "They were the reason I've stayed this long. It was one of the most valuable support systems in HISD, and for that to just be gone is just ridiculous."

The teacher said the autism services team attended a virtual meeting late last week. During this, they were told the district was dissolving their positions but not terminating them.

On Monday, the district released a statement indicating that these educators could interview for positions in the new unit model that splits district operations into four divisions. Each division will have a special education unit, where these teachers can continue to provide support and coaching to SLC classrooms – but at a “more defined group of campuses.”

The district said this is an effort to be closer to the assigned campuses and enables staff to provide more focused support to a small number of schools. The itinerant teachers can also opt to be assigned to one of the special education positions at a campus with special education vacancies instead.

However, the teacher said the team members were initially told they would be relocated to campuses to teach special education full-time. This garnered a lot of pushback from instructors who wanted to stay within autism education but wanted to have the opportunity to help many classrooms, not just one.

These instructors didn't just monitor classrooms; they worked to help teach both types of classes for students with autism: the “standard” classes with students who had autism that could grasp the general education curriculum and the “alternative” classes with autistic kids who used the “unique learning system” curriculum.

They also provided special education teacher professional development training specific to autism before the school year each year. This would usually consist of one to three days where these instructors could work with the autism services team to set up the structure of their classrooms, get resources to use in the classroom and strategies to manage behavior and sensory needs, according to the teacher.

Despite the district's statement that SLC teachers were provided with opportunities to participate in SLC-specific professional development, with coaching and training continuing throughout the year, this training is no longer run by the autism team.

Amanda, a former HISD autism teacher who worked closely with itinerant teachers while with the district, said first-year educators would struggle as campus administrators attempt to meet their needs in a similar fashion.

“My first year, my experience in my district with the administrator was she wouldn’t go more than two steps in my classroom when my students were there,” she said. “She couldn’t handle their behavior; she didn’t know what to do, so this did not help.”

Amanda said she came back to teach her second year after one of her students broke her nose because of the team of instructors that were immediately and directly accessible to provide her with assistance and insight.

She said campus administrators, such as SPED (Special Education) directors and coordinators, who are taking over these operations would “absolutely not” be able to provide support services similarly.

The latest cuts come after the district terminated 21 contract special education instructors and diagnosticians, as Superintendent Mike Miles stated he wanted to focus on hiring and recruiting full-time employees of the district.

There are currently 1,800 campus and central office employees whose work is related to special education, and the district is still actively hiring for vacant special education positions.

Miles plans to release a comprehensive plan for the district’s special education services in September, after classes start at the beginning of next week.

However, educators and parents alike are worried about how special education teachers will hold up and how their children will be affected amid what they see as a lack of support from Miles' new administration.

‘I don’t know what his plan is, but I’m not hopeful,” the teacher said. “He's not cutting the people that sit in an office all day; he’s cutting people that come into the classroom and provide support.”

HISD's statement:

We will provide support for all students with special education needs, including students with autism as part of the Unit Support Model. This model moves supports for special education needs from the central office and puts them within the divisions. The Unit model provides a Director of Special Education, two coordinators, and a manager assigned to a specific feeder pattern of schools within each Division. This model allows support to be closer to the assigned campuses and enables staff to provide more focused supports to a smaller number of schools.

All of these staff members remain on the District payroll. Staff members who held the title of Itinerant Teacher now have an opportunity to interview for the positions within the new structure. If placed in the Unit Structure, these itinerant teachers - whose job was to coach and support SLC teachers district-wide - will still provide support and coaching but to a much more defined group of campuses. Those who don’t take a position in the Unit Structure will be offered a special education position at campuses with special education vacancies.

With more than 1,800 campus and central office employees dedicated to special education, support for students goes beyond this restructuring. Last week all SLC teachers were provided with opportunities to participate in SLC-specific professional development, and all teachers and support staff can continue to access additional coaching and professional development throughout the school year. In addition, the district is currently participating in the “Support for Students with Autism” grant, which provides SLC teachers with opportunities to visit model SLC classrooms throughout the district.

FAITH BUGENHAGEN is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.

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