HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Studies show special education students learn better and are better equipped for life when they spend more classroom time with students who don't have special needs.
That's why federal law mandates what's called "inclusion."
But statistics show Hawaii is lagging way behind the national average.
"Presently, only 36 percent of the students attend a regular classroom for 80 percent of the time," said Board of Education vice chairman Brian De Lima.
Nationally, 62 percent of SPED students meet the mark.
Tricia Sheehey, a member of the Special Education Advisory Council, said the DOE lacks a plan for improving special education services.
"You can't just say we're going to do inclusion, and here this year you've got 10 of your 29 students that are going to have special needs," she said.
Meanwhile, DOE acknowledges they've got work to do.
"Definitely, it starts with the teachers and their training," said DOE Assistant Superintendent Suzanne Mulcahy.
She said the department will focus more effort on including special needs students in regular classes, and adds the DOE needs more and better trained special education teachers and more support from administrators.
"It has a great deal to do with the principal's philosophy, with the principal's ability to work with the teachers to provide the training and professional development required. It is not easy," she said.
Some 16,500 Hawaii students are in special education.
The state had wanted 58 percent of special education kids to hit the 80 percent classroom time mark by 2012.
The target date was recently pushed back to 2018.
De Lima, whose daughter is a special needs student, said the DOE is trying to increase it's "inclusion" rate.
"It has to be done. It has to be done sooner rather than later for the sake of the community as well as the student," he said.
Only 22 percent of Hawaii's special needs students are proficient in reading and 15 percent are proficient in math. Educators believe more "inclusion" can improve those numbers.
"Special education is not a place, it's a program," Sheehey said. "That program can be implemented anywhere with knowledgeable teachers working together."
Mulcahy added that parent involvement is essential "so that all parents understand how important it is for kids to be included with regular education peers and not pulled out and separated."
Some schools and districts do better at including special education students in regular classes.
Mulcahy said the DOE will apply what's working at those schools in schools that need help.
"It's going to be very very challenging. We're going to need everybody, the entire village if you will, to be on board with us," she said.