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Audit Calls for Revamping SF Special Ed Program

Recent test scores show Oakland has a long way to go when it comes to closing the achievement gap.
Recent test scores show Oakland has a long way to go when it comes to closing the achievement gap.
Report recommends mainstreaming students into general ed classrooms

A critical assessment of The San Francisco Unified School District's special education department that calls for dramatic systemic changes was unveiled Tuesday night at a board meeting.

The less-than-flattering report, which was based on an audit of the district's services for students with disabilities, recommends mainstreaming special ed students into regular classrooms.

"I don't think anyone who reads the report can say that it doesn't present the good, the bad and the ugly," said Dr. David Riley, executive director of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative, the Massachusetts group that conducted the audit. "Often special education is not given priority. If you read the report, you can see that we need that kind of priority here. The San Francisco model is outdated."

Last spring, the district commissioned an independent evaluation of its special education services. The Collaborative, a national network of more than 100 school districts, reviewed policies, procedures, training manuals, state records, job descriptions and other documents. Auditors also visited eight schools and interviewed more than 100 parents and education professionals.

The report calls the district's special education practices reactionary, discipline-specific and focused on compliance-related activities and crisis management. Put simply: Schools are babysitting these kids, not teaching them.

Riley and his colleague, Ronald Felton, say the district has long been too focused on compliance with state and federal special education regulations and not focused enough on outcomes for students with special needs.

"Special education needs to be primarily about teaching and learning," said Felton, associate director of the Collaborative. "Compliance is not the end all, be all."

Riley agreed: "Most students should be in general education classrooms with the right support. That means teachers are retrained, paraprofessionals are in the room."

Richard Carranza, SFUSD's deputy superintendent of instruction, innovation and social justice, was upbeat despite the reports findings.

"We're really excited," Carranza said, adding that a major paradigm shift is on the horizon. "This isn't just about special education. We want to create a seamless integration of instruction district-wide."

Lemons-into-lemonade seems to be the official SFUSD position in the wake of the audit. The idea is to fully integrate the district's 6,300 students with disabilities into the general education classes of the 140 schools that serve them. No more Quonset hut classrooms, where kids with autism, visual impairments, emotional disturbance, developmental disabilities and other special needs are lumped together to vie for the attention of teachers who struggle to teach on a triage basis.

Instead, say district officials, those students will join mainstream classes, where paraprofessionals and special education teachers will provide adjunct support to general education teachers. The amount of one-on-one or small-group instruction students with special needs receive would be based on their Individual Education Plans (IEPs). The goals are to produce grade-level learning and testing across the diverse student spectrum, and to provide greater academic and professional opportunities down the road. At the moment, students with disabilities represent the group with the lowest demonstrated proficiency in math and English.

The report, which cost $140,000, also calls for a reevaluation of the process to identify students who need special services. The auditors found disproportionate representation of particular ethnicities in some special-needs categories. African-American students in San Francisco, for example, account for only 11 percent of the total student population, but make up 24 percent of the special education population and 49.3 percent of the students identified as emotionally disturbed. The auditors are concerned that some of this "disproportionality" is the result of inappropriate identification.

Student assignment practices are another area of concern. Many students with disabilities (and their parents) have fewer choices regarding which school they will attend because some special programs aren't offered at all schools at all grade levels. The result can be long commutes to far-off campuses or attending school apart from siblings.

Riley says that the district has the resources, both fiscal and human, to integrate all students currently in special education programs. During the audit, he noted that San Francisco schools are rich with dedicated teachers and other professionals and that many program deficiencies stem from an outdated and disorganized leadership structure. The auditors say that school-level staff and parents consistently expressed frustration with the lack of guidance from the Special Education Department.

"We saw a lot of heroic efforts," Riley said about the teachers he encountered during the months-long audit, "but not a lot of support for it."

The report notes a "disturbing" frequency of the word encroachment by district administrators when they discussed the impact of special education on the district's budget. The term, auditors wrote, "suggests a view of special education and the students it serves as existing apart from the general education program and as a drain on resources that could (or should) be used for other students."

According to the district, San Francisco Unified spends $122 million annually on special education programs and services, including transportation. Of that, $14 million goes to non-public school placements for students with special needs.

The auditors and the district believe that over time teachers can be retrained and new services can be implemented by moving money around, not by spending more of it. But not everyone agrees that the district can pay for the changes by reallocating existing resources.

"I don't see how they're going to do that," said Linda Plack, executive vice president of United Educators of San Francisco. "We're not prepared to condemn the effort. We appreciate the scrutiny. We just hope the bottom line isn't the only consideration."

Plack is also interested to see how the district will integrate general education classrooms without overlooking the individualized needs of San Francisco's diverse student population.

"That's precisely the issue when we talk about inclusion," she said. "How does a teacher cope? Every teacher wants to meet the needs of the classroom. We have students who are nonverbal, students who still wear diapers in high school, we have students with feeding tubes or motorized wheelchairs. Then we have students who are dyslexic. We're looking forward to seeing a plan for how the district is rolling this out to meet the needs of our students."

Rolling out that plan is going to take time.

"We're talking about a three- to five-year plan for some of the recommendations," said Cecelia Dodge, the new assistant superintendent of special education, adding that a complete makeover could take seven to 10 years. "Things will change every step of the way."

So, does the district agree with the Collaborative's assessments?

"Absolutely," Dodge says. "Virtually all of them.

It remains to be seen how kids will feel about the changes, though. Of the 33 individuals and groups listed as interviewees in the audit's appendix, students are conspicuously absent. Riley says he and his team spoke with a few kids during visits to schools, but not many.

"I think it just wasn't on the radar of the auditors," she said of the lack of student voices. "But it's important as we move forward to solicit input from students, especially older students. Most of our students in special education aren't cognitively impaired. Talking to them would have been very helpful."

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