Houston Independent School District (HISD) has eliminated a team of itinerant teachers who provided support and coaching to special education teachers dealing with behavioral or academic issues of students with autism. The decision was made as part of a broader restructuring plan under Superintendent Mike Miles, who was appointed by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in June.
The team consisted of about half a dozen itinerant teachers who primarily supported teachers in Structured Learning Classrooms (SLCs), which specialize in serving students with autism. The team also assisted with students placed in general education and other settings upon request.
The itinerant teachers were notified on Thursday, August 17, during a professional development workshop that their positions were eliminated, according to sources familiar with the situation. The teachers will be allowed to interview for a different position that will still allow them to support “a much more defined group of campuses”, according to a district spokesperson. Otherwise, they will be offered a campus-based position at a school with special education vacancies. A district spokesperson said all of the employees on the team remained on the district payroll as of Monday, August 21.
One SLC teacher, who requested anonymity, said the itinerant teachers were “our lifeline” and “invaluable” for new and experienced teachers alike. “The itinerant teachers are the first person we call when we have a crisis in the classroom, or if we get a new student and we need some support,” the teacher said. “They’re invaluable for brand new teachers. I don’t know what I would have done when I first started if I didn’t have an itinerant who came in and basically helped me get my classroom started.”
The teacher also expressed concern about how the elimination of the team would affect the students with autism, who need a highly structured start of class to succeed throughout the year. “Students with autism have such unique needs — they just need very particular things in a classroom structure,” the teacher explained. “If the structure is not there in the classroom, students might try to leave the classroom, they might become aggressive, they might become self-injurious.”
Restructuring Plan Aims to Improve Special Education Services
The elimination of the autism support team is part of a major overhaul of the Central Office, including the elimination of more than 2,300 positions and the reorganization of the administration into four divisions. According to Miles, this restructuring allows the district to push support services, like special education and HR support, closer to campuses in each unit. Under this model, each unit will have a special education “unit” consisting of a director, a manager and two coordinators. The district spokesperson said this model “allows support to be closer to the assigned campuses and enables staff to provide more focused supports to a smaller number of schools.”
Miles is charged by the TEA with improving special education services in HISD, which has long failed to properly support students in that population. The district must become fully compliant with special education laws in order to exit the state takeover and transition back to local control. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath noted in a March letter to HISD leadership that their approach to supporting students with disabilities continues to violate state and federal law.
The restructuring also comes on the heels of a decision last week to eliminate nearly two dozen licensed school psychologists and educational diagnosticians who were supposed to support special education students this school year as independent contractors. HISD said it prefers full-time, district personnel over third-party vendors.
Parents and Advocates Express Outrage and Disappointment
The news of the autism support team’s disbandment has sparked outrage and disappointment among parents and advocates of students with special needs. They say the decision shows a lack of understanding and respect for the challenges faced by students with autism and their teachers.
“I’m appalled,” said Bobbie Rodriguez, president of Autism Society Texas Gulf Coast. “I think it’s a slap in the face to our kids and our families.” Rodriguez said she has heard from several parents who are worried about how their children will cope with the changes in their classrooms. She said she plans to contact Miles and other district officials to voice her concerns and demand answers.
Rodriguez also questioned the timing of the decision, which was made days before the start of classes on Monday, August 28. She said this would leave little time for teachers to prepare and adjust to the new situation. “It’s very disruptive,” she said. “It’s not fair to anybody.”
Another parent, Jennifer Hines, whose son has autism and attends an SLC at HISD, said she was shocked and saddened by the news. She said her son’s teacher relied on the itinerant teacher for guidance and support, especially when dealing with challenging behaviors. “They were very helpful,” she said. “They knew what they were doing.” Hines said she fears that without the itinerant teacher, her son’s teacher will be overwhelmed and unable to provide the best education for her son. “I’m worried about his progress,” she said. “I’m worried about his safety.”
Hines said she hopes the district will reconsider its decision and reinstate the autism support team. She said she believes the district should invest more in special education, not less. “They need to understand that these kids are important,” she said. “They deserve the same quality of education as any other kid.”