Education News

Houston’s Special Ed Enrollment Still Lags National Rate

In 2016, when the Houston Chronicle revealed that Texas had an arbitrary cap on special ed at 8.5% of all students, special ed enrollment in Houston schools was 7.3%, according to state data. Now, it’s just 7.5%.

Shannon Verrett, who oversees special education at HISD, addresses a crowd of special ed teachers and parents.

Some 300 special education teachers and parents in the Houston Independent School District are gathering this week to prepare for the new school year. To kick off the conference, the district’s assistant superintendent over special ed, Shannon Verrett, roused them with some inspirational words.

“Let’s not simply comply with regulations and law. Let’s comply with what we know to be right and just in our hearts and in our souls,” Verrett told the crowded auditorium in southwest Houston.

Still, the U.S. Department of Education continues to monitor the Texas Education Agency to make sure it does comply with federal law and doesn’t deny any children with disabilities access to special ed services.

And Houston’s enrollment in special ed still lags far behind the national average of 13%. In 2016, when the Houston Chronicle revealed that Texas had an arbitrary cap on special ed at 8.5% of all students, special ed enrollment in Houston schools was 7.3%, according to state data. Now it’s just 7.5% — or, an additional 200 students in the state’s largest school district.

Verrett said he believes those numbers don’t reflect all the students who are in the process of being evaluated for a disability or who are identified, but aren’t officially enrolled and receiving special services yet. He said that this summer, before the beginning the school year, HISD diagnosticians need to close some 300 evaluations.

“I want to make sure we’re identifying kids. And as we identify kids, that percentage will increase,” Verrett said. “So for me, it’s not 7%, 8% — It could be 21%, if indeed we are identifying kids.”

In May, federal administrators visited Houston and five other Texas school districts to check on the state’s progress to comply with federal law and make sure all eligible children have access to special ed. Verrett, who has been in his role at HISD for just over a year, said that they asked a lot about special ed evaluations and how they’re closing the gap.

“The key is that we have to make sure that individuals understand, it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that if a student is struggling, that student needs to be evaluated,” Verrett said. “If a parent, if a teacher, if a student makes a request, we have to make sure we respond to that request.”

Last year, an independent audit of HISD’s special ed services found a host of problems, including complex paperwork, a shortage of needed special ed staff, such as school psychologists, and a tendency to require students to undergo other interventions before they could be tested for an eligible disability.

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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