AISD’s Special Education System Struggles to Keep Up
School system tries to keep up with its workload and comply with legal mandates
Trasell Underwood doesn't know how hard it will be yet.
Underwood adopted her son when he was 5 months old; she says his birth mother was using drugs during pregnancy, and she was concerned from the outset about his potential disabilities. When her son was in prekindergarten, she felt her toddler was even more hyperactive than toddlers typically are, and had him independently tested for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She brought the results to the special education staff at Pecan Springs Elementary, who concurred. But diagnoses change as kids grow and develop, and sometimes that growth highlights new needs to be addressed by parents and teachers. That's why the law requires reevaluation for special education students every three years.
When her son was in first grade, in October 2019, and that reevaluation date came up, Underwood had even more questions. Her son would become incredibly uncomfortable when he confronted changing situations, and he had even more difficulty focusing than she'd become used to. She wanted to know if he might need help for additional learning disabilities.
After an initial meeting, Underwood said she should have received the results of the reevaluation within a month, but that day came and went. Frustrated by the lack of communication, Underwood called and discovered that her son's evaluator had quit. The school warned Underwood it might take another month to finalize the findings; she grudgingly assented, expecting it would be promptly completed.
Three semesters later, Underwood's "biggest fear" has come true. She still has no evaluation showing what learning disabilities her son might have, no idea what additional supports he might need, and no clue when he will be tested. She has mentally prepared herself for the worst-case scenario – that the testing will not occur at all this year. Although her son, now in second grade, has returned to in-person school due to his ADHD, she says she still has no picture of how great his learning losses might be.
"Each time I thought about how, virtually or [with] him at home, how can we [address] any of his accommodations, I would go back to – well, shoot, we don't even know how his accommodations should be addressed, because he hasn't even been tested!" Underwood said. "We don't even know how extreme it needs to be, or how minimal it needs to be. There was no clear direction from an evaluator ... We didn't have that."
Underwood is one of hundreds of parents caught up in backlogs in Austin ISD's special education evaluation system, which determines which students are eligible for services and what supports – such as speech therapy, counseling, or extra teaching time – they need. Without evaluations, students can't enter the system; without timely reevaluations, their evolving needs can't be addressed.
Right now, AISD's system is severely understaffed and overtaxed, according to more than a dozen interviews with parents, organizers, advocates, and current and former staff and administrators. This has led to backlogs that violate legal requirements and, in some cases, produce devastating waits for students and parents. Approximately 500 initial evaluations and a "similar number" of reevaluations are currently overdue, and the numbers of staff who would typically be able to fill them are dwindling, leading to a heavy reliance on contracted employees. According to data obtained through open records requests, AISD has lost nearly half of its evaluation staff since October 2019.
The losses have been especially heavy for licensed specialists in school psychology (LSSPs), who write evaluations and conduct many of the behavioral and cognitive assessments that determine if students are eligible for particular special education services. In March 2019, the district employed 51 LSSPs; since then, 48 have resigned. Even with new hires, the district currently employs only 19 LSSPs, putting its student-to-psychologist ratio at 3,959:1 – nearly six times the upper limit recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists.
"I just continue to see people come on, people go, 'Oh crap, this is a mess,' and people quit," said one current AISD special education employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about retribution. "You get this job, and then within two months you're gone."
Although there is a national shortage of such professionals, the district's severe staffing situation has also been the subject of two corrective actions imposed by the Texas Education Agency in the past two years. And COVID-19 has only intensified matters – 627 initial evaluations, and at least as many reevaluations, were put on hold for months due to the pandemic. The backlog only began to be tackled in October 2020, after a lawsuit was filed by the advocacy group Disability Rights Texas.
"It's just a total and complete system failure," Leah Marie Kelly, a former special education employee and parent of a special education student, said. "The whole entire system is broken. Top down, bottom up."
How Did We Get Here?
The story begins with a shock wave felt by schools across Texas – the lifting of caps on the percentage of students in each district allowed to access special education services. This cap of 8.5% – compared to national estimates that as many as 13% of K-12 students need such services – was imposed by TEA in 2004 during a state budget crisis and then quietly left in place. After a 2016 investigation by the Houston Chronicle exposed the many troubling ways in which Texas schools denied thousands of students the services they had a right to under federal law, TEA revised its policy and was then further checked by the Texas Legislature, which in 2017 enacted statutory prohibitions against any such caps.
Dr. Akweta Hickman, AISD's executive director of special education, announced this week she would be leaving the district; she first arrived in Austin in March 2019, 18 months after the legislation ending the caps went into effect and as the district was still adjusting, she said, to the influx of referrals. "That was happening and well underway when I came to Austin," Hickman told the Chronicle in an interview, before she announced her resignation in an email to staff on Tuesday, Feb. 23. "There were more referrals coming in from parent requests for evaluations, in significant numbers, already underway in May of 2019. That did not change. It continued, and is still today part of what we're experiencing."
While districts across Texas were dealing with this spike in demand for evaluations, that fall AISD began experiencing uniquely high staff attrition, especially among evaluators: 32 people affiliated with the special education department resigned in the last half of 2019, including many evaluators. From late November 2019 through February 2020, the district's staff of evaluators shrunk by 11 employees, a 17% drop. Karen Owens, who had worked with the district since 1998, was one of the first to go.
At the time, Owens was supervising AISD's evaluators to ensure compliance with legal timelines. In prior months, a couple of "nail-biters" aside, they had mostly managed the task. But over the summer of 2019, Owens said, it suddenly became much more difficult to get approval for contract extensions to complete evaluations over the summer, a common way for evaluators to get ahead of the back-to-school deadline crunch while being paid for their additional time. (Hickman told us that "there was not a scaling back [according to] any knowledge that I have, and [it was] definitely not on my authority that that occurred.") In addition, Owens said, she was overstressed and overworked, working 12-hour days frequently, including on weekends. The burden, and the perceived lack of support from the administration, drove her to resign in August, just after receiving her pin commemorating 20 years of AISD service.
"It was hard enough just to get the evaluations done to the degree that we had," Owens said. "And any idea that I was going to get pushback about [that] and not be supported from on high, to achieve the goals [that] had been set? You know, it was ... it was heartbreaking and depressing."
A "Negative Feedback Loop"
Within four months, Owens had been followed out the door by 31 other special education staffers – an exodus that attracted notice from district and community leaders and the media. These resignees also said they were asked to do more than was possible; some claimed their workloads had doubled, increases not reflected in their pay.
Those who left included Amy Leigh Shatila, an LSSP who resigned in December 2019. Although Shatila told us she knew the pay was lower in Austin than in surrounding districts, she joined AISD in 2015 – and recommended the district to her friends – because of the community and ability to make an impact on students' lives. Shatila typically worked on evaluations over the summer, an additional income stream that she said "ground to a halt" in summer 2019. In the fall, she said, she was faced with unclear and confusing expectations, and a lack of support from leadership.
Shatila served two middle schools alone, a caseload too big for one LSSP to handle. She says she was told to focus only on initial evaluations, and then, only after those were completed, turn her attention to reevaluations. "I had parents who would call me weekly, crying and crying and crying," she told the Chronicle.
Shatila had hoped to be with AISD the rest of her career. Instead, after throwing up from stress on the way to work, she resigned in December 2019 with no other job in place.
"It was super traumatic. You invest yourself heavily in your campus, in your kids. You don't pour yourself into it for years and years ... to just walk away. Like, that's unheard of," Shatila said. "It was horrible. But I was ultimately left with a choice. I would have to go against my own ethics on a daily basis, and try to toe the line ... or I could go with what I knew was ethically right, and go against what they thought, and be in trouble for work. I was like, man, I didn't go into this field to be so consumed with these worries that I can't help children."
The district responded to the 2019 exodus with a modest pay increase for special education staffers, but the damage was largely done. The resignations, Education Austin organizer Matt Inman told us, demonstrated the "negative feedback loop" that's ongoing in the department: increased referrals lead to overworked employees, who leave, which increases the workload on those who remain, as the district develops a reputation as a bad place to work for special education professionals, making it harder for AISD to replenish its staff. "We're kind of in shambles, and everyone knows it," Inman said.
Only a few months after the exodus, Austin and Texas began to feel the disruptive brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in every aspect of life, including school. The suspension of in-person learning and more or less complete shutdown of AISD campuses from April until October of last year also constrained special education services, and no initial evaluations, let alone reevaluations, were completed for months.
Eventually, the spiraling delays caught the attention of Disability Rights Texas, which describes itself as "the federally designated legal protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities" (every state has one). The agency took legal action against AISD for impermissibly late evaluations; AISD acknowledged that it hadn't met the timelines to serve hundreds of students and submitted a corrective action plan to TEA to "address systemic issues." These efforts ranged from expanding recruitment efforts to fill staff positions, to quadrupling AISD's use of contracted outside providers, to redesigning the evaluation assignment system.
"We're reasonable and understand that COVID changed a lot of what can and can't happen," said Kym Rogers, an attorney with Disability Rights Texas who worked on the case. "A lot of our concern with Austin is that there seemed to be absolutely no attempt to do what could be done, even when in-person [visits] couldn't occur." Hickman told us the district conducted "some inventories and interviews [with] parents" in online formats, although it was unable to complete most evaluations as they require in-person assessment.
Since October, AISD has begun in-person evaluations, opened in-person instruction to all who want to return, and made special education students a priority to bring back to campus. However, a district spokesperson told the Chronicle via email that "approximately 500" initial evaluations are still overdue, around 80% of the peak backlog in October. Hickman added that AISD gets about 15 new referrals per day, and that evaluations can take up to 20 hours and input from multiple staffers to complete.
While the backlog continues, parents such as Underwood wait without knowing what support, if any, their children need – or when the district will provide it. And some current AISD special education staffers, who spoke to the Chronicle on the condition of anonymity, still describe themselves as overworked. One teacher interviewed in mid-November said she was looking forward to Thanksgiving for a chance to get caught up with paperwork.
Another teacher participates in time-consuming annual ARD reviews for many students – the "admission, review, and dismissal" process in which parents and educators develop individual education plans for each special education student – in addition to her regular instructional duties. Her school has multiple vacant positions; she's been forced to take personal days off just to catch up with emails, parent communications, and paperwork. Despite getting regular panic attacks while driving to work, she said, she stays with the district.
"If I had any other option, I would quit. My co-workers, every single one of them, if they had any other option, they would quit," she said. "But the district understands that we don't have a lot of options. They understand that we don't want to hurt our co-workers. We sure as hell don't want to hurt our kids and their families. And I think that they take advantage of that."
However, AISD leadership also says the situation is untenable. "I know this is not ideal in any way," Hickman said. "We know that we want to get our kids services as swiftly as possible. We are working really hard to do that. We've done quite a bit of evaluations ... we're bringing in contractors, and we're working really hard to make it happen for our students and our families."
Hickman said in her resignation email that she was leaving to join her husband, who is working outside the Austin area, after the recent death of her mother; she plans to "remain available" to staff as the transition proceeds.
In January 2020, Underwood, a former AISD employee who now works for Education Austin, was in a meeting where Hickman was also in attendance and mentioned her son's case to the director. However, she said Hickman "played it off like, 'Well, that was, you know, oh, it's a reeval. Oh, that's fine. We can be late.' Basically, that's what I walked away with."
After a disastrous experience with virtual learning after the spring COVID-19 campus shutdown, Underwood sent her son back to in-person school in the fall, hoping it would offer a better environment. Instead, he came home declaring, "I don't want to be at school no more." His conviction that "school sucks" was driven in part by turnover in his classroom, with one of his favorite teachers leaving after an evaluator working with his campus had already resigned. Although he's settled into a routine now and is happier in the stable classroom, Underwood says she still worries about his learning – and isn't sure if AISD can help him.
"There's actually no trust," Underwood said. "My child's already in special ed, and not getting the services that he should be getting. So yeah, I don't trust right now ... I'm trying to keep from being resolved to the fact that he may not be tested this year, but I feel like he won't be."