Seattle Public Schools

Special Education

Department Information

Seattle Public Schools Special Education

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) provides special education services for more than 7,000 students (about 13%) of the District. Of these, about 80% spend the majority of their day in general education or advanced learning settings. Our students are also enrolled in most District programs, including Montessori and Highly Capable Cohort. We are proud that our students with disabilities are engaged in a broad range of opportunities. Nonetheless, we seek improvement. Equity in access to neighborhood schools, option schools, and all of the District’s programs is an ongoing priority for our department.

Who Receives Special Education Services?

Students who have both a disability and require services not provided in general education are eligible for special education. To participate, students must be referred to our department, evaluated and qualified. If you think your student needs special education services, you can initiate a referral.

Not all students with disabilities need special education services. Those who do not need special education services may find useful supports through the SPS 504 Department and resources through the SPS Office of Student Civil Rights. Special education is also not intended as a resource for non-disabled students in need of additional academic support.

What is Disability?

All human beings have strengths and challenges. When an individual has a challenge or impairment, physical or mental, that is significant enough to limit their ability to participate in activities of daily life, it is defined as a disability. School is a vital part of daily life for all children. Special education is one way in which Seattle Public Schools supports students with disabilities so that they can participate fully in their education.

“People First” Language

People with disabilities are people, first and foremost. They are diverse, contributing members of our communities. For this reason, we respectfully refer to them as person, student, or other title first and only then, if relevant, identify their disability.

As individuals, people with disabilities will not all share identical beliefs about disability and the language used to describe it. Be respectful, but not disengaged. If you do not know an individual well enough to be certain of their preferences, it is usually better to ask politely rather than to avoid conversation altogether or to make inappropriate assumptions.

Link to Learn

“People First” Language The Arc of the United States (The Arc)

What Is Special Education?

Special education services consist of specially designed instruction and related services. Instruction refers to the content of what is taught (examples: reading or social skills). Related services refer to both instructional and non-instructional supports (examples: transportation or language interpretation).

Services are not intended to be a barrier to either the general education curriculum or setting.

The document defining a student’s services is called an Individual Education Program or IEP. The components of an IEP are standardized under Federal Law. Within that structure, the services defined are unique to each student. The IEP is based on the student’s evaluation and created collaboratively by an IEP team including the parent/guardian.

A basic component of every IEP is to define what services will be delivered (example: specially designed math instruction). The answer will vary based on the individual student’s needs.

Why Do We Provide Special Education?

We provide special education services because we believe that every student in Seattle Public Schools deserves membership, support, challenge and achievement.

The Federal Government agrees; The Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA ensures students access to public education. The Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA also protect the civil and educational rights of students with disabilities.

When Is Special Education Delivered?

Students must have an IEP, based on evaluation, before services can begin. The purpose is to ensure that services are based on a comprehensive understanding of a student’s capabilities and challenges. Initiation of services requires parental consent. These, and other rules, are legal rights under IDEA, referred to as procedural safeguards.

A basic component of every IEP is to define when (example: during math class) services (example: specially designed math instruction) are needed and for how long (example: 15 minutes). The answer will vary based on the individual student’s needs.

Where Is Special Education Delivered?

Students receiving services should learn in the setting that allows them to make progress academically, socially, and in other areas addressed in the IEP. Legally, this is referred to as the least restrictive environment or LRE. For many students this will be the general education setting. For some, a small group or other educational setting better supports learning. For most, the LRE will vary depending on the content of instruction.

A basic component of every IEP is to define the school setting, or where services will be delivered (example: the general education classroom). The answer will vary based on the individual student’s needs.

A complete list of the setting (where), intensity (how much), and instructional content (what) of an individual student’s services is called their placement. Placement does not define a particular school building or District program. The building and/ or District program a student attends is called their assignment.

Within Seattle Public Schools (SPS) we are introducing a new delivery structure for special education called the Continuum Approach. It is designed to best align students’ individual services/placement with the skills/training of our special education staff. We use the term SPS Primary Placement to define this alignment. SPS Primary Placements include: Resource, Access, Focus, Social/Emotional, Distinct and Unique. Resource case managers are available at every school. Other Primary Placements, due to smaller numbers of students, are available regionally, but not at every school.

Department Mission, Principles, and Strategic Planning Goals

We are guided by the belief that every student in Seattle Public Schools deserves membership, challenge, support, and achievement.


Seattle Public Schools charge is to effect positive change in the lives of young people by preparing them with skills, experiences, and knowledge necessary to afford them wide-ranging opportunities in the future. The goal of the special education department is to actualize this charge for all qualified students, regardless of disability.

Guiding Principles

  • Students come first.
  • Quality instruction and support are the keys to student success.
  • A safe and welcoming learning environment supports all students.
  • Effective District leadership provides highly functional organizational structure, accountability, and community engagement.

Students come first.

We believe…

  • It is essential to place the wellbeing of students first in every decision we make.
  • The core work of the district is supporting student learning.
  • It is our responsibility to ensure that every child, regardless of race, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, language proficiency, learning style, or disability, has the tools to achieve their potential.

Quality instruction and support are the keys to student success.

We believe…

  • High quality instruction, built on rigorous and relevant curriculum, measurable outcomes, positive relationships and appropriate professional development is the foundation of student achievement.
  • All students should be honored with high expectations in the context of a culture that respects individual differences and includes fair treatment, honesty, openness and integrity.
  • We must provide equitable access to educational opportunities.

A safe and welcoming learning environment supports all students.

We believe…

  • Our schools should be the heart of our communities, providing a healthy context for growth, discourse and learning.
  • Every school should be welcoming of all students and families.

Effective District leadership provides highly functional organizational structure, accountability and community engagement.

We believe…

  • We must demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement through collaboration and thoughtful planning.
  • It is our public duty to properly steward District resources through ethical behavior, compliance with the law, transparency and sound fiscal management.
  • Community partnerships and family engagement are fundamental to achieving sustained student success.
  • We are working proactively to provide a continuum of services for students receiving special education services to enhance integration of the general education curriculum and each students individual education plan.
  • We are working across departments to provide the continuum of services equitably across district school sites and programs to guarantee all students fair participation in the district’s assignment process.
  • We are working to build effective partnerships and communication with families.
  • We are working to educate our whole community about the rights and needs of students with disabilities and to collaborate with school teams to improve teaching practice and outcomes for students.

The Continuum Approach, a service delivery structure, plans for the following:

  • A flexible team delivery approach, lead by case managers, designed to provide a truly Individual Education Program (IEP) for each student.
  • Defined roles, experience and ongoing training for five specialized types of case managers. Paving the way for consistent, high quality services district-wide.
  • Guidelines for completing a network of service sites that, collectively, can serve almost all special education students, about 95%, in or near their home school. These changes will also enhance transparency and predictability around the assignment process for families.
  • Guidelines and a pathway for students with very unique assignment needs, about 5%, for whom proximity to home is not the first assignment priority.

The Continuum Approach is not:

  • A series of one size fit all programs that teach a single curriculum to all assigned students.
  • Driven by specific diagnostic labels.
  • Intended to set artificial limits on any student?s access to the general education

Frequently Asked Questions

What do I do if I believe a child in my classroom or within my care may have a disability?

As school staff or parents suspect a disability that may be a barrier to a student’s ability to access the general education curriculum, they should contact the school principal to initiate a referral for special education services. The principal will direct the parent through the initial stages of the referral process.

What is the difference between a supervisor and a program specialist?

The supervisor oversees the schools on their learning team, leads the early childhood programs and coordinates and leads the private school services. These centrally based leaders work to support schools through the training and support of two program specialists.

Supervisors monitor school practices for compliance with district policy and state law, review compliance data, provide training and support to program specialists, establish policy and procedure in collaboration with the special education leadership team and assist in central level decision-making.

Program specialists consult, coach, offer guidance, help problem solve and support schools in the IEP process as needed. The majority of their week is spent in the schools talking with and working alongside school staff, meeting with principals, providing support for unique needs and helping to determine program and service models for the schools. Program specialists offer insight and knowledge toward decisions around programs, budget and departmental procedures.

Who do I contact with questions regarding related services such as speech, occupational therapy, or deaf and hard of hearing services?

Please visit our contact us page for Special Education contact information.

Who can I speak with to learn the protocols and procedures around the discipline of a child with special needs?

School-based discipline for a child is highly unique and decisions are dictated by the factors present within each situation. The Seattle Public Schools (SPS) discipline website provides an overview of the policies and procedures around discipline for all children, and offers a special section devoted to children served in special education.

For questions or concerns regarding a disciplinary issue occurring within a specific school, contact your school principal. For further assistance, contact your regional supervisor.

Who should I go to if I have a concern about my child who is receiving special education services?

The first person to resolve any concerns that you might have is your child’s case manager. This will usually be his/her special education teacher. Parents/guardians can always request a parent-teacher conference. If a resolution is not reached there, the next person with whom to discuss your concerns is your school assistant principal/principal.

If your concern is around a special education issue and you are not able to resolve it at the school level, you may talk to the special education program specialist or the regional supervisor assigned to your school. To find out who your program specialist or the supervisor is for your school, you may call the special education office.

If you feel that your issue is not being resolved, you may contact the district ombudsperson.