Our special ed priority: Hire more teachers, raise bar for all


Suzanne Mulcahy, new assistant superintendent of the Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support at HIDOE, is optimistic about raising educational outcomes for all students. She has 15 years’ experience in the classroom teaching regular and special education at the elementary and intermediate school levels. This piece originally ran in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

​​​As the newly appointed assistant superintendent of the Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support, my passion for ensuring that every student learns, coupled with my experience as a teacher, fuels my focus on improving student and staff success in the area of special education.

suzanne mulcahyThere is incredible work being done by many educators who possess commitment, expertise and perseverance in the midst of challenging goals.

HIDOE's mission is to serve all students, putting them on a path toward success in college and/or careers. It is our job to enable students to graduate with the skills and abilities to allow them to pursue what they are passionate about, without having to settle for something by default because they were not prepared. I have a sincere interest in overseeing meaningful changes to better serve our students with disabilities.

Special education is many things. It may include, but is not limited to, academic services, speech- language services, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, counseling services and parent education.

Last year, 10.5 percent of our 180,895 students received special education services through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), in which teaching is differentiated to meet the needs of the individual student.

In any school year, teachers help each student grow academically, socially, emotionally and ethically. This is a big challenge. It is a bigger challenge when the student has a disability.

In addition, Hawaii now has more rigorous Common Core standards and aligned assessments in place, designed to better prepare our keiki for college, career, life. We’ve raised the bar.

So how is Hawaii doing in serving our special-needs students
amid higher exp​ectations for all?

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires each state to report on its progress in meeting the requirements of the statute. Recent federal review has determined Hawaii “needs assistance” in meeting IDEA compliance. What this ultimately means is that Hawaii has a ways to go in adjusting to higher expectations at all levels. Thirty other states also fall into this category.

We’re taking a deeper look at our approach to strategic improvements across the state in our performance plans and implementation. (See bit.ly/HIDOEsped​.)

Our highest priority is to have our students with disabilities demonstrating achievement similar to their academic peers, and on that front we’ve seen some success. The IDEA review shows Hawaii is in the top-third of states with the lowest dropout percentage of special-needs students. We are on the right path toward success and motivated to continue to improve.

Our delivery of quality education to special-needs students depends on qualified teachers. Unfortunately, finding these specialized professionals has been a longstanding problem. State- wide we have 2,108 established special education teaching positions, but 156 of those are vacant.

We depend on a qualified substitute teacher pool to assist in taking on these hard-to-fill positions. While recruiting for this specialized field remains a high priority, we also know that we must work on long-term solutions for our schools.

Starting with this 2015-16 school year, there will be a renewed focus on developing and providing additional training for special education and general education teachers; reviewing the teacher and position allocations and making adjustments as necessary; and working with our HIDOE and community stakeholders.

It will take a concentrated and collaborative effort to see results improve for all students. Collectively, we can and we will do better.


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