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Education Desk: April 22, 2015

“Just Show Up,” Retta Robertson Tells Parents of Students With Special Needs

It's a Wednesday night and about 20 parents of students with special needs are sitting around a table in a Wilson High School classroom learning about a peer–to–peer social support program called Circle of Friends (www.circleoffriendsadvocacy.com).

The group is the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) of Santa Clara Unified and its chair is a petite dynamo named Retta Robertson. While inclusion is the central tenet for special education today, the CAC is about including parents in special education. The committee is a state–mandated part of special education in California, but many don't know it exists.

Robertson intends to change that.

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She's had her own journey and knows what it’s like to feel alone. When her daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia, Robertson says she didn't know her rights. She opted out of the individualized education plan [IEP] – the legally binding plan for accommodations and services that the district must provide for each student in special education. Roberson thought her daughter wasn't getting the support she needed, but didn't know how to advocate for her daughter's needs.

This led to an expensive private school, then a charter school, and finally back into the mainstream when her daughter wanted to return to public school. “She wanted to be doing what her older sister was doing. She says, 'I want to go to football games, I want to be a cheerleader.'”

This time around Robertson became the expert she had needed when her daughter started school, and got the accommodations she needed. “That's what drives me: helping parents avoid the road I took.”

Today Robertson's daughter is a high school honors student and member of a highly competitive performance team. But Robertson never forgets that the story could have had a different ending.

Today she's a passionate and experienced advocate – she's a certified Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates Special Education Advocate – for parents of students with special needs. “My focus is getting people to know this [CAC] exists and they can have a voice and make change happen,” she says.

The CAC meets every other month and there's an open house in August to introduce parents to the committee and its role. In addition, Robertson hosts a coffee with Parents Helping Parents where parents can talk, share their experiences and get advice and help from other parents, or simply learn what the blizzard of acronyms surrounding special education mean.

The new structure for school funding and accountability – the Local Control Accountability Plan – puts parents' front and center in determining what district goals and metrics will be. The CAC had a special education–specific Common Core presentation where parents had hands–on demonstrations of the curriculum and assessments.

There are about 2,200 students in SCUSD's special education programs. “Imagine 2,200 parents coming out,” she says. “Imagine even 10 percent of that number coming out.” Participation is the key, she says, to bringing programs like Circle of Friends to district schools. Not taking advantage of the opportunity “is like having the right to vote and not exercising it.”

“Can we put this kind of program into the LCAP,” one parent asked that evening. The answer is that they can, and they need to. “Just come and have a seat,” says Robertson. “You won't have to bake brownies for a bake sale. I just want people to know what their rights are. Services are out there, but you have to know where to start.”

For information about the Community Advisory Committee in SCUSD, visit selpa7cac.webs.com. Contact Retta Robertson at rconleyrobertson@gmail.com or (408) 565–5322.

Information about the Cupertino and Campbell school districts Community Advisory Committees is at www.fuhsd.org/CAC and www.selpa3cac.org, respectively. Find countywide CAC information, visit www.santaclarausd.org/departments.cfm?subpage=929914.

Campbell Elementary Parcel Tax Mail–Only Election

Campbell Union School District (CUSD) has a $49 parcel tax, Measure B, on the ballot for a May 5 all–mail election. Precipitated by a cut in state funding for the district over the next eight years, the tax will go directly to classroom programs, say backers. Santa Clara south of Saratoga and west of Pruneridge is in CUSD.

Campbell Union is the only district in the area that doesn't have a parcel tax for schools, and it's asking for considerably less than most. For example, Palo Alto is asking voters to renew its $638 parcel tax plus a $120 increase, plus a two percent annual increase over its six–year term to about $830.

CUSD has fluctuated in the past between being Revenue–Limited – state–funded, when local property tax revenue doesn't meet the state's per–student base funding, currently $6,845 to $8,289 – and Basic Aid – funded primarily by local property tax, when that exceeds the state funding.

When Governor Jerry Brown changed the school funding formula in 2012, CUSD ended up losing money with the new formula – Local Control Funding Formula, LCFF. Special–program – “categorical” – funding was replaced with a base grant that offers additional funding for specific populations including English learners and economically disadvantaged students.

In addition, CUSD isn't sharing the one–time windfall that some school districts are getting from the dissolution of the state's redevelopment agencies. SCUSD received $22 million this school year from the RDA dissolution, as well as over $6 million from increased property tax revenues. A significant part of CUSD is in San Jose, whose RDA had few assets and a lot of long–term debt, so property tax revenue is still diverted to pay off bonds, and will be for decades.

Measure B needs a two–thirds supermajority vote to pass. Ballots were mailed the first week in April and must be returned by May 5 to be counted. CUSD includes Campbell, and parts of Los Gatos, San Jose, Santa Clara, Monte Sereno and Saratoga. The district has about 7,500 students and a $75 million budget. For information, visit campbellusd.org. The next CUSD board meeting is April 30 at Monroe Middle School, 1055 S. Monroe St. in San Jose.

Monroe Middle School Aims to be a STEAM Engine

Partnering with Cabrillo College–based MakersFactory (makersfactory.com), CUSD's Monroe Middle School has launched a new STEAM Center – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics – where students and teachers can explore 3D graphic design, modeling and printing; programming; microcontroller programming and use; and game–based learning. The program starts this month.

STEAM is an educational approach developed by Rhode Island School of Design, and based on the idea that innovation isn't just math and engineering. Artistic imagination is every bit as central as technical knowledge to innovation. For example, think of how Apple “imagined” mobile phones into omnipresent mobile devices that do everything from giving us directions to letting us watch ballgames on–the–go.

“STEAM is more than the subjects in its name,” explained CUSD Marketing Communications Director Maria Sanchez in an email. “It's about blending those disciplines in ways that promote collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creative problem–solving. It brings real–world applications to classroom learning.”

Three–dimensional printing is a fabrication operation in a box. Using inkjet printer heads, a 3D printer lays down material in layers that create three–dimensional objects from a digital image. These can be models, prototypes, sculptures or usable devices. One recent application of 3D printing is to build prosthetic limbs at a fraction of the cost of conventional methods. Visit www.3dprinter.net to see some examples.

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