This commentary appeared in the April 9, 2013 edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. It was written by Annie Kalama, Educational Specialist, Special Education Section, Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support.
In a few weeks, Pope Elementary School will feature its first May Day King with autism: a 12-year-old boy whose parents decided to keep him with teacher Cindy Razga and her team at Pope in Waimanalo, even when his mom moved to Pearl City for her husband's job.
Pua Kamahoahoa made arrangements for her son, Chanz Palau, to live with family members in Waimanalo, yet makes the 44-mile roundtrip drive daily to spend time with her son. Why? Because in Pua's words, Razga and the Pope team have helped her family "stay persistent … stay hopeful, stay patient."
Pope Elementary is one of a handful of sites targeted by a special Department project designed to support students with disabilities. The Po‘okela Project is designed to transform existing schools into Centers of Educational Excellence (CEE), five of which are on track to become CEEs on Autism and Developmental Disabilities and Inclusive Practices (increasing general classroom time for students with disabilities).
As we observe Autism Awareness Month this April, Chanz's story is a reminder of the challenging but promising work being done here to support students with developmental disabilities.
Chanz is one of approximately 1,390 students eligible under the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) within the Department. Autism is a very complex disability with no two students alike. For all students, learning requires observation, imitation, communication and active engagement — skills that are especially challenging for children diagnosed with ASD.
Autism significantly affects verbal and nonverbal communication and social interactions. It is generally evident before age 3 and adversely affects a student's ability to learn. Other characteristics include repetitive use of language and/or motor activities, resistance to changes in routines or the environment, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. Defined by a set of behaviors, autism is a "spectrum disorder" that affects students in different ways and to varying degrees.
To support teachers and schools, the Department has a district educational specialist and district consultants to train, coach and provide programming oversight. Both schools and parents can access the expertise and support of the staff, including some who are certified as behavior analysts.
To become certified, our CEEs must show evidence of rigorous standards of excellence. This includes elements such as knowledge and application of evidence-based practices for students with ASD; use of appropriate structure and supports for learning; comprehensive assessment and program development; and use of student data to inform educational decisions.
One unique feature about the Po‘okela CEEs is the training component. All training includes demonstrations, observed practices, and feedback within the classroom to ensure teachers and educational assistants have accurately learned and can effectively apply their new skills.
The Department also partners with Learning Disabilities Association of Hawaii — the state's Parent Information Training agency — to strengthen collaboration among schools, parents and community. Through this partnership, schools are developing Parent Educator Exceptional Resources Teams, consisting of parents and educators who promote teamwork, provide site-based resources to parents and teachers and work together on ideas for system improvement.
In Hawaii, a positive three-year trend shows an increasing number of autistic students being placed in general-education settings for more than 80 percent of the school day. Reflecting that trend, the numbers show autistic students are spending less time in special-education classrooms.
But we must keep on working hard for our children. While the needs are great, our children need great teachers who are dedicated and committed.
The Department extends a heartfelt mahalo to teachers like Cindy Razga, and every one of the more than 4,000 special-education teachers and educational assistants in the islands, as well as community partners and families for their collaboration on this rewarding journey.