Kathryn Whitley Chu’s daughter was 2 and a half years old when the COVID-19 pandemic began. While stuck at home, her family had gotten used to the way the young girl spoke. But when she returned to preschool 17 months later, teachers and students struggled to understand her speech.
“We could understand her,” Whitley Chu said. “I think being so isolated, we weren’t hearing that many other children that age to compare and know where she was.”
A pediatrician recommended that she have her daughter evaluated for special education services. So, Whitley Chu emailed Austin ISD requesting a full evaluation. An evaluation determines if a student has a disability as well as the services and supports they are entitled to.
Whitley Chu had heard rumors that getting an evaluation through the district was taking longer than it was supposed to. The rumors were true. Once a parent or guardian requests or consents to an evaluation, it is legally required to happen within 45 school days. But months were passing by, and Whitley Chu worried about the impact waiting for services would have on her daughter.
She decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I went ahead and started calling through to get private speech therapy services, and so many places had months-long waitlists,” she said.
When Whitley Chu did end up finding someone who could see her daughter, the provider didn’t take insurance. Her family ended up paying for everything out of pocket.
“Most families cannot do that,” she said. “It’s an undue hardship on folks, and we were very lucky to be able to do that for our child.”
The process Whitley Chu went through to get a special education evaluation for her daughter was not only long but stressful. She struggled to figure out the right person to contact at the district for updates. When a licensed specialist in school psychology (LSSP) was finally available — seven months after her initial request — that person was a contractor with Austin ISD who lived in another city and conducted the evaluation via Zoom.
“The amount of hours it takes [when] you’re researching what to do, what is the law, who should I email, writing emails, on the phone, doing everything you can, becomes very consuming,” she said.
It became so consuming that Whitley Chu began to limit the hours she was working at Austin Community College. Eventually, her daughter did get speech therapy services through Austin ISD. But the challenges she faced getting there made her want to stand up for other students in the same position as her daughter. She decided to run for a seat on the Austin ISD Board of Trustees last November and won by a landslide.
Three other new trustees — all of whom have worked in education — were elected to the school board. A day after the election, the board members learned they would be tasked with finding a new interim superintendent. They hired then-Chief of Operations Matias Segura to fill the role. Since he started Jan. 3, Segura and the board have made improving special education services their top priority. But three months later, the state announced plans to step in.
How bad is the backlog?
As of late March, 1,808 Austin ISD special education evaluations were overdue. That figure includes both initial evaluations and reevaluations for students who are already receiving services. Reevaluations must occur at least once every three years.
According to the Texas Education Agency, Austin ISD’s failure to provide special education services in a timely manner runs so deep that state oversight is required.
Last week, TEA announced a plan to install a management team in Austin ISD’s special education department. This comes almost exactly two years after an advocacy group called Disability Rights Texas filed a federal lawsuit against the district over long-delayed evaluations. Steven Aleman, a senior policy specialist for the group, said it was about time for the state to get involved. He said even though it is encouraging that the interim superintendent and school board are focused on improving special education, the problem has persisted for too long.
“Regardless of changes in the boardroom or even in the superintendent’s office, for that matter, the bottom line is that the district itself has had a problem that’s actually grown from bad to worse,” he said.
Austin ISD parent Amy Trost waited more than a year for her child to be reevaluated. Her son has Down syndrome, and he’s been receiving special education services since kindergarten. But he did not get all the supports that Trost thought he needed to be successful in a general education classroom.
While her son qualified for services such as speech and occupational therapy, the district refused to give him an aide for the number of hours Trost wanted.
“We have never been able to get him as fully included in the general education classroom as we would like, and so that kind of has felt like beating our heads against the wall for all those years,” she said.
Now, her son is in middle school, and Trost wants to have him reevaluated for autism to ensure he gets the services he needs.
Her family requested the reevaluation on Jan. 18, 2022. It was legally required to be completed within 45 school days, but it did not happen for more than a year.
Trost said she does not think the situation is as bad for her son because he is getting services, but she said the district’s failure to provide initial evaluations on time is “shameful.”
“Maybe [students] aren’t learning to read, maybe they’re not learning to write, and they can’t get that time back while the district is waiting a year to evaluate them,” she said.
Trost said she does think special education is a priority for interim Superintendent Segura.
“We just have to see if anything changes,” she said.
Austin ISD has a plan, but staffing is still a problem
Austin ISD officials outlined the steps they are taking to improve special education services when the school board held a special meeting Monday. Those steps include a new dashboard to track evaluations, more aggressive recruitment efforts and ongoing collaboration and training with education consulting firm Stetson and Associates. The same firm evaluated and published a report on AISD’s special education services last year.
“There are significant problems to overcome, but I absolutely have no doubt this district is going to do that because of the level of action-planning that is occurring,” said Frances Stetson, the firm’s president.
Stetson said that many school districts are struggling to find evaluators because there is a nationwide shortage of them. The problem is especially bad in Texas. There is one LSSP (known as a school psychologist in most other states) for every 2,597 students, according to the Texas Association of School Psychologists.
Within Austin ISD, there are 75 positions for LSSPs and educational diagnosticians, who can evaluate students. Only 22 of those are filled, according to data the district shared Monday.
And Austin ISD’s evaluation backlog can actually make it harder to recruit more staff. Segura said that’s why the district is not just focused on improving compensation but also the work culture.
“We don’t want people to come into AISD and feel immediately that they’re going to be overburdened,” he said. “We want to make sure that they’re supported so they can do the work.”
In recent years, staff in the special education department did not feel supported, according to the Stetson report, which included feedback from staff. Employees described a culture that was punitive and unsupportive. The previous administration, under former AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde, decided to lay off staff and make them reapply for jobs citing a “toxic work environment.” Some folks who got their jobs back still left. According to the district, 58 LSSPs and educational diagnosticians resigned or retired between the 2019-2020 school year and the 2021-2022 school year.
Attracting and retaining staff is not the only challenge. The recent instability and current backlog make it more difficult to create a pipeline for potential employees, such as graduate students who are studying to become school psychologists.
Kizzy Albritton, an associate professor in the UT Austin College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology, said students in her department complete internships in local school districts such as Leander, Pflugerville, Round Rock and Del Valle ISDs.
Graduate students consider a variety of factors when deciding where to intern, Albritton said, such as student demographics and the types of experiences they’ll be able to have. She said students are aware of Austin ISD’s special education evaluation backlog.
“It could be that given a lot of the challenges that are happening in Austin ISD, our students, and us as faculty, we want to be particular about whether or not we think students will have the opportunity to complete all of the experiences that are needed without feeling overwhelmed or there being any disruption with the challenges that are currently going on,” she said.
Austin ISD’s current evaluator shortage and the lack of a robust pipeline for new talent raise the question: How will these evaluations get done and get done well? The state’s proposed conservatorship, for example, does not come with a bunch of evaluators prepared to address the backlog.
Trost says children deserve the best and right now they are not getting it.
“Every student at Austin ISD deserves to learn to the best of their abilities,” she said. “That is the onus on the district: to provide those services and supports for every kid.”